Super Cocina

My family immigrated to San Diego from Xalapa, Mexico, in 1987. In 1989, my parents founded Super Cocina, a small restaurant, in the building where the Barrio Logan Farmers Market was once held. This iconic building, which resembled a Mexican market with its many shops, is still there—but it has been converted into a Walmart. We eventually relocated Super Cocina to City Heights over 25 years ago, and have been here ever since.

From the beginning, my parents knew they wanted to serve the traditional food eaten in homes in Xalapa, known as guisados, or stews. We catered to the local clientele, who consisted heavily of blue collar immigrant workers, often far from their homes and families. The guisados, to them, were nostalgic and comforting reminders of their homeland. Today, we rotate over two hundred guisados at the restaurant throughout the year. Although these are central to Mexican cuisine, you will have trouble finding them outside someone’s home.

In the United States, diversity is purportedly celebrated, but is the way we treat diverse businesses reflective of that? Small, immigrant-owned businesses in City Heights like ours face substantial barriers to growth. Business resources—whether it be permits, grants, loans, or any bureaucracy—are more difficult to navigate when language and cultural barriers are at play. Then you have the effects of redlining, continual gentrification of our neighborhood, and the lingering perception that businesses like ours serve food and communities that are not “American.” And finally, there’s the lack of capital, a challenge shared by small businesses everywhere. 

Like many small restaurants around us, we are supported almost exclusively by clientele within our immediate neighborhood, and furthermore, by people who share our country of origin. But small businesses should be more widely celebrated. I’d like to see intentional promotion of our immigrant-owned businesses by organizations outside of our own. Public agencies, the media, and groups that feature things to do in San Diego County can all help us by highlighting small, little-known shops and restaurants like those in City Heights. Marketing agencies could help lead a concerted effort to help these businesses reach new clientele. Programs could be started to offer business owners technical support or assistance with using social media. We can work together to remind customers of the countless alternatives they have to the same few corporate franchises and chains—and that their support of small businesses truly matters.

What has led to these challenges? I think misunderstandings between business owners and policymakers have yielded unsustainable policies for years. The needs of both sides have never truly been hashed out, and many “small business” associations in the government do not speak for me or my values. 

I joined Business For Good San Diego because I was tired of being seen as the opposing side on progressive ordinances such as increasing the minimum wage. Working together with others in a coalition has made a big difference in being able to come to the table with a powerful argument against policies that don’t work for small business owners. 

The truth is, I want to take a stand on social justice and environment-related issues, while also ensuring that the impacts on San Diego’s true small businesses are considered. Both can be done. Workers and small business owners both need to be involved in the lawmaking process.

Lessons learned over 30 years of business

Three decades after our doors first opened, I can say I’ve learned a few lessons about business ownership. Keeping growth slow and deliberate is probably the most important one. Many shops take their initial success as a sign that they must expand their brand by opening more locations or by increasing services. It is also tempting to change your product or the way you serve with outside forces such as gentrification. Unfortunately, this has been the undoing of many businesses. 

Our style of food is artisanal and hard to replicate, so we decided to center our efforts on one storefront, focusing on consistency, value, and sticking to our traditional concept. We do make adjustments here and there, but we try to stay true to our core business and increase our customer base by trusting this practice. We have been able to weather many economic, social, and health-related storms this way. 

Vision for the future of Super Cocina

My vision is to continue providing our style of food—comforting, nostalgic, and artisanal cooking from the Mexican heartland. Many of our recipes remain unchanged since pre-Hispanic times, and we hope to keep these time-tested dishes alive by sharing them with clients for generations. Super Cocina’s food is one of the clearest reflections of my past, my heritage, and my culture. It is a way of teaching my community about our people.

I believe that what has always been mislabeled as City Heights’ weakness—the presence of people hailing from all over the world—is actually our greatest strength. As I continue serving my customers, I will also keep advocating for my community and fellow business owners, to receive the support we need to keep our businesses, our family legacies, and our stories alive.

Juan Pablo Sanchez is the owner and operator of Super Cocina, and board member of Business For Good. Juan Pablo's family put down roots after immigrating from Mexico, opening up the family restaurant, Super Cocina. As a business leader in City Heights, Juan Pablo has been an advocate for the community by serving on various boards and planning committees.

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