Things were bustling during a Wednesday lunch rush at Comal Heritage Food Incubator at RiNo’s Taxi Campus as young professionals crowded the restaurant’s small, modern dining room.
The venue is fresh off a massive win: on Oct. 12, they were featured in the New York Time’s 2021 Restaurant List as one of the 50 best venues in the U.S. The Times praised their “long-cooked pork shoulder with a redolent salsa roja” and “pillowy” tortillas in the review.
“It was just such an honor to see Comal’s name on that list,” Matthew Vernon, the director of social enterprises of Comal’s partner Focus Points Family Resource Center, said. He was proud of “the opportunity to make the participants in our community visible to such a huge audience.”
The business has served as a restaurant as well as an entrepreneurial incubator where women originally from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa can learn the ins and outs of business while earning an income.
“When serving low-income immigrant refugee women, we found that even free education is too expensive,” Vernon explained. “Supporting our participants (with) a stipend to cover basic costs like utilities or childcare or transportation (ensures) this opportunity doesn’t create a hindrance on the family.”
The restaurant originally grew as a partnership between Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents alongside Focus Points Family Resource Center, an organization offering early childhood and adult education for families in one of the poorest parts of Denver.
Only a day after the article came out, Comal was slammed with almost double the number of customers during lunch. They had to turn away around a dozen lunchgoers, selling out completely by 1:45 p.m. They nearly set an all-time record for sales.
Josh Davidoff was one of those first-time customers on Wednesday. When his mother sent him the Times’ roundup, he knew it was time for a check-in.
“It’s a restaurant I’ve known about for a while,” Davidoff said. He lives in the Hilltop neighborhood, so the Times article gave him “the kick in the butt I needed to get out here.”
Comal’s incubator has already spawned four full-fledged businesses, including La Catrina Grill, a food truck called Prieto’s Catering, catering venue Zaki Mediterranean Cuisine and Jebena Ethiopian Coffee and Culture.
Comal’s inclusion as the only business incubator on the restaurant list also indicates a greater national attention to these types of ventures. Similar organizations have taken notice.
“I think that investors should be paying attention to these small enterprises and these incubators,” Angeles Ortega, the CEO of Mi Casa community center, said. Mi Casa has been providing education and training for low-income Latino residents in Southwest Denver for over 40 years. “It’s a great way to build a stronger community and a diverse community,” Ortega said.
But, like many other venues that have weathered the pandemic, Comal is still struggling to find staff. Vernon said it has been a challenge, but is optimistic that Comal’s welcoming environment and flexible hours will be the perfect fit for someone. And with so many new customers, their Help Wanted sign shouldn’t go unnoticed.
This story has been updated with quotes from Mi Casa CEO Angeles Ortega.