“I look around and I thank God I’m still standing, with so many businesses closing down. I arrived in this country 18 years ago, the same day I turned 23, with $700 in my pocket and a backpack full of dreams. When you put all the time and effort into the right things, it will pay off.”
Oakland, CA – Javier Sandes came to the U.S. in 2001 to play soccer through Patten University in Oakland. In 2007 after so many injuries he decided to end his fútbol career. Feeling down and depressed, he started cooking for fun and to share with friends. It was natural for Javi — he grew up in a family of cooks back home in Buenos Aires, and cooking was and still is in his DNA. “It’s a passion of mine,” he said.
In 2009, Javi co-founded and launched Primo’s Parrilla, a mobile food business that focused on Argentine grilled meats, beef, chicken, pork, and fish slowly cooked over the grill using natural wood and charcoals. He told us that even though it was during the end of the last recession, it was completely different then. “Primo’s Parrilla was one of the few food trucks in Emeryville, I remember It was us, John’s street Eats, Ebbets Good to Go, Korean BBQ truck, and Liba Falafel (who, unfortunately, just closed shop for good due to COVID). The food truck movement was just getting started, and people were excited about a new thing.” Emeryville was happening, and people from all over the Bay Area would come to have lunch with us at the little park of Hollis and 62nd.
In 2011, he started Javi’s Cooking as a wholesale empanada business and Argentine BBQ catering business. Renting a commercial kitchen was the first move to get things going, so he found Kitchener Oakland, a commercial kitchen located in the uptown area that he rented by the hour to make empanadas for cafés, bars and restaurants, and also to sell at pop-ups events. Room 389 Bar was his very first wholesale account for empanadas, so when the owners opened MadOak Bar by Lake Merritt in Oakland they invited Javi’s Cooking to set up shop during 2015-2016. In 2017, he partnered with Dirty Bird Lounge, a new bar in downtown Hayward, where Sandes ran the kitchen until March 2018. His time there ended when Javi’s Cooking got the first big contract with the Oakland Coliseum, where he built his own empanada stand on seccion 133 and served empanadas at A’s and Raiders games during the 2018 season. Javi said, “It’s the first time empanadas hit a ballpark and they for sure became very popular.”
We met Javi in 2018, shortly after PCV began our work overhauling how we do business in order to serve more entrepreneurs of color. We had just modified our underwriting process — how we make lending decisions — to consider a borrower’s personal and business income. This is especially important for entrepreneurs of color because while many have fundamentally good businesses, with a shorter time in business they often don’t meet the criteria used by major banks and the SBA. At the time, Javi wanted to expand Javi’s Cooking to open a Brick & Mortar location in West Oakland. He’d been turned down by his bank, because his loan request was too small for them and his business too new. We were able to make a $100,000 loan to Javi, and couldn’t have been more excited to work with him!
In July 2018 Javi found his current location in West Oakland and moved his whole operation on November, “There’s nothing like having your own place” Javi shared with us. In December 2018 he opened his shop, a little empanada/coffee shop and empanada factory in the back where he moved all his equipment, including new machinery that cuts the pastry dough into perfectly circular shapes, and a pressing machine that also brands each empanada on the corner with small letters to show what the filling is. It took a few team members to run the equipment, and Javi had to hire up to meet his exploding demand. At the close of 2019, Javi had 125% job growth from the year prior and Javi’s Cooking met three of PCV’s criteria for a “Good Jobs” business.
Javi’s Cooking is a real blueprint for business success, and Javi himself and his passion drove all of it. In March 2019, Javi signed a contract with Bon Appetit to set up shop at the Oracle Park to sell empanadas with the San Francisco Giant’s games. His location in the stadium wasn’t the best, but it was a great learning experience. In February 2020 he signed the second contract with Bon Appetit getting a second chance with a much better location in the Stadium. During this time, He started the process of negotiating with Quilmes — an Argentinian beer company — to sponsor him at the Ball Park and build a joint shipping container in the stadium. It would have been amazing, but in March 2020 the pandemic hit us.
“It’s hard to explain,” Javi said, “but I had to reinvent myself. We lost 100% of our wholesale business – stadium business, summer events and festivals, large catering companies, small cafes, bars, and the big one was school districts. We lost everything we worked hard for the last eight years. Things were going in the right direction with a great success but now it’s time to work harder and maintain what we have left, our little empanada and coffee shop”
Javi’s is a bellwether story for small business owners, especially food businesses, in the age of COVID-19. In late March, after California’s shelter in place order, he started reducing hours because he had to, and some employees left. Once the CARES act passed, some workers had to choose between reduced hours and unemployment benefits. Javi is down to a team of four now, but he’s working hard to keep them. “I talked with many other small business owners about this,” he said, “and I needed to focus and spend my time on finding a way to create revenue to pay my bills. I put all of my energy into the shop, I turned the shop into a bakery, grocery, and meat store, where we started to sell essentials, even toilet paper. We started offering dinners to go, pizzas, sandwiches, expanding our menu.” In May of this year, Javi started the process to get his wine and beer license. He also invested in rebuilding his website and incorporated a new ordering system called Chow Now. There hasn’t been a silver bullet, but it is helping to create more revenue.
“I was focused on a smart way to rebuild myself and explore every opportunity to survive the pandemic. I did not want to lose employees, they are the motor of this ship without my team I would never made it this far. They’re great people and huge support for us, they’re trained, and know the systems, so I needed to keep them busy by incorporating new things, my goal was to keep employees working.”
Like most all of PCV’s clients, we’ve paused Javi’s loan payments for a time, and we wish there was more we could do. Javi said, “When the pandemic started in March, I was desperate, like most business owners, so I applied for every loan programs out there: PPP, SBA, EIDL. I talked to my bank. I was really worried about running out of money with all my bills and payroll.” Javi got a PPP loan, which gave him some time and space to breathe a little , and let him focus on other projects he was working on. “I also applied for SBA EIDL loan which was approved but shortly after declined because of errors in the system. I don’t know if we’ll get it, but it will be a relief.” Like most every small business owner, he was forced to act quick and be creative because his overheard (expenses such as payroll, rent, PG&E, water, internet, security, trash, etc) is still the same.
Javi says his goal for the remainder of 2020 is to safely stay open, expand his menu, and rebuild. He knows schools and stadiums will not be opening, at least for the rest of this year. Catering businesses are struggling right now — most of his catering clients were feeding tech companies, who are all working from home during this pandemic for the rest of the year. But he’s not giving up. Far from it!
Every day is a new day to create opportunities. For example, one day his food supplier called him and offered a veritable mountain of meat. “I bought 400 pounds of rib eye steak, and cases of whole chicken to offer family meals to go,” Javi told us, laughing. “I sliced that 400 pounds of ribeye steak and vacuum sealed it myself, and sold it. I said, let’s make affordable dinners for people on Friday nights, dinner for 4 for $30, Sandwiches on Thursdays. I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. I built so much in the Bay Area, and this pushed me to do more every day. Saturdays are the busiest days, and folks come up from San Jose, San Leandro, Hayward, Walnut Creek, etc, from all over the Bay Area. “You have no idea how much that means to me,” I tell my customers.
“I look around and I thank God I’m still standing, with so many businesses closing down. I arrived in this country 18 years ago, the same day I turned 23, with $700 in my pocket and a backpack full of dreams. I wasn’t scared about not speaking English. I put myself into school to learn English, found a job after 3 days and I started my own story in this country. I met the nicest people, many of which became family later on. I was creating opportunities and making new friends every day. When you put all the time and effort into the right things, it will pay off. I know I will keep building great new things.”
Javi’s serves over 15 different varieties of empanadas, from traditional meats to vegan and dessert.