The Torta Man of Minneapolis: Manny Gonzalez

Manny Gonzalez never expected to stay in the United States. He moved to Minneapolis from Mexico City at age 21, with a simple goal: learn English and return to Mexico City. Manny explains, “I was going to school in Mexico City for hotel administration and culinary arts.  I applied to work at the Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City, but they didn’t give me a job because I didn’t speak English. I thought, I’d better learn English.”  This pursuit led Manny to Minneapolis, the coldest major American city.

I went to the American Embassy and they showed me this book of the universities, and I saw Minneapolis, I saw ten thousand lakes, and I thought that looked cool. They never showed me the snow.

Three decades later, Manny Gonzalez, owner of Manny’s Tortas, is Minneapolis’ primer torta vendor with two locations on Lake Street in South Minneapolis.  I met Manny at his second location in the Midtown Global Market, where his restaurant is packed away in the southeast corner of the building.  Manny is undoubtedly unique, with slicked backed hair, a prominent mustache, polished attire and gracious smile. His distinct personality makes him lovable and famed in the city—whether he is ringing up the register or grilling up a torta.

Risky Behavior

It takes a great deal of risk to become a successful restaurant owner in America—let alone a successful ethnic entrepreneur—nearly 30% of independent restaurants fail during the first year of operation (Parsa et al., 2005:304)  Moving to America at age 21 to learn English was Manny’s first big risk—one that luckily paid off. “It was a risk, but it was the time too, I wanted to see other things and I wanted to learn the language, it was like an adventure.”   It was only after Manny moved to the United States, and started learning English, that he realized he might have a future here. “It is funny. You start learning English, and then you start meeting people. I met some people from the restaurant business. They knew I was a chef so I started getting jobs in the restaurant business.”

Mannys Tortas MGMIn 1999, after many of years working for others, Manny got the chance to open his own restaurant in the newly developed Mercado Central on Lake Street.  Despite economic help from major players in the Minneapolis development scene, like the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) and the Project for Pride in Living, Manny explains the risks he took, “The reason they chose to open a Mercado there was because the Latino population was growing in South Minneapolis, but when they opened the Mercado Central in this neighborhood, there was a lot of crime, and nobody wanted to open a business around here. It was a big risk. People said to me, ‘Why are you going to open a business? There’s crime; there’s drugs,’ I said, ‘Yes, I know, but I’m from Mexico City.’”

Again, Manny’s risky behavior paid off, “Initially when we opened the Mercado it changed the dynamic of the neighborhood. The neighborhood loved it that we opened the Mercado because the crime left.”  Today, according to the NDC, “The business owners at Mercado Central generate more than $1.2 million in annual sales and have created nearly 90 jobs. There are 43 entrepreneurs in business at the Mercado, including 10 of the founding owners from 1999.”   Manny himself has reached a revenue of over half a million—allowing his expansion into the Midtown Global Market in 2006 (Partners for Livable Communities, 2012).

Intercultural Contact

It’s not only the food I make for them, I try to involve my culture.

Ethnic entrepreneurs are on the forefront of intercultural relations in American society.  With the increase in transnational migration, the interaction of cultures and nationalities is increasingly common in contemporary American society.  Minneapolis in particular has a growing immigrant population, which increased over 130% during the 1990s (you can read more about this change here).  This increase in immigrant and immigrant-owned businesses, in particular restaurants, brings a whole host of new sights and smells to Minneapolis neighborhoods.  Laurier Turgeon and Madeleine Pastinelli explain, “Eating can create difference and distance, but it can also reduce these identity markers and turn them into sameness and nearness (2002:251).”  Put another way, the majority of Americans haven’t been to Mexico, but they have eaten a taco or a burrito or even a torta.  Turgeon and Pastinelli continue:

“Ethnic restaurants represent microspaces allowing for intercultural contact, deterritorialized places where diners can see and touch, even consume the culture of the other on home ground. Within the confines of such restaurants, we are able to observe how various groups interact and how the foreign becomes familiar. Day in and day out, all sorts of people freely patronize these exotic establishments, unburdened by passport or identity card, entering and exiting at will.” [2002:251]

The Mercado Central, the Midtown Global Market and Manny’s Tortas are all prime examples of microspaces of intercultural contact—entering and exiting these establishments shows us both difference and sameness.  Manny freely admits a torta is nothing more than a Mexican sandwich, and while the torta’s history is localized to Mexico, the sandwich is a global phenomenon and one that is prevalent in American cuisine.

Since Manny’s Tortas first open in the Mercado Central back in 1999, Manny has undoubtedly been a key link in educating Minneapolis about this lesser known Mexican dish —and about Mexican culture in general.  Even though Manny estimates only 30% of his of costumers at the Mercado Central are Americans, he believes close to 90% of his customers at the Midtown Global Market location are American. More importantly, things have changed since 1999, “At that time nobody knew what tortas were.  Nobody was selling tortas.”  When I questioned Manny on how many people ask him what a torta is, he said, “Believe it or not, not that many, before, yes, now not that many. There are a few that still don’t know what a torta is, but, now people know.”  Manny explicitly stated that he views himself as an ambassador for Mexican culture. “I am.  It’s not only the food I make for them, I try to involve my culture. I’m involved with Latino organizations in Minneapolis that promote cultural events at the Mexican Consulate.  We do a lot of festivals, like Cinco de Mayo and the Mexican Independence Day.  It’s about trying to educate the American people, about the Mexican culture, not only Americans but different ethnicities too.”

While it wasn’t his original goal, Manny Gonzalez has become a successful ethnic entrepreneur, a feat most immigrants don’t ever accomplish.  While Manny is undoubtedly a talented restauranteur and a diligent worker, he believes the successes he has achieved wouldn’t have been likely in Mexico. “I think you are more likely to be successful in the United States than in Mexico.  You can get a lot of stuff here but you have to work for it, nobody’s going to give it to you.  The difference in Mexico, it’s more family orientated down there.  You may have the vision and all that kind of stuff, but if you don’t know people down there, if you don’t have connections, sometimes you won’t make it.”

I think the United States is one of the best countries in the world, it is the land of opportunity, it helps a lot of immigrants.

Even though the American Embassy neglected to mention the harsh Minnesota winters, Manny doesn’t regret his decision to move to the United States one bit.  While he clearly has an affinity for Mexico, he also loves it up here, “I’m glad I moved up here. Yes, I love it here. I love this state.”  And despite claiming to lead a typical American life (with a little bit of Latino flair), there is one thing Manny simply won’t try, “The one thing I didn’t go to do yet is ice fishing, I don’t think that’s fun, sitting in a box.”  I, for one, am happy he makes tortas instead!

References:

  1. Parsa, H. G., John T. Self, David Njite, and Tiffany King.
  2. 2005.  Why restaurants fail. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly 46(3):304-322.
  3. Turgeon, Laurier and Madeleine Pastinelli.
    2002.  Eat the World: Postcolonial Encounters in Quebec City’s Ethnic Restaurants. The Journal of American Folklore 115(456):247-268.
  4. Neighborhood Development Center: www.ndc-mn.org/mercadocentral.
  5. Partners for Livable Communities: www.livable.org/livability-resources/best-practices/285.


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