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<p>&quot;I feel like my first line of mentorship is my staff,&quot;&nbsp;Salamanca says. Photo: Wil Brawley</p>

Centro's Angela Salamanca endures trial by fire to succeed

The Raleigh, N.C., restaurateur didn't set out to run restaurants, but life happened

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I graduated from high school in 1993, which seems like forever ago.  I applied to college and I did not get in.  Mom and Dad decided that it would be a good idea for me to come to the States and take six months before I could apply to college again.  My Uncle Carlos was here and he had this restaurant.  They said, “Why don’t you just go and hang out with him.  You can practice your English.  Then you can come back and take the test again and you can just start the rest of your life.”  Bogota in the late 1990s was a really difficult city to be in — very, very violent.  There was a lot of stuff going on with the drug cartels.  But because that’s where you are, you don’t question it — it’s just part of your natural environment.  I didn’t even realize how lucky I was coming here to see Carlos for what I thought it was going to be a six-month break.  

I started working with him right away.  I was 17.  I didn’t stress that I was away from Mom and Dad.  Especially Mom, because I grew up with a single mother and she was very involved and very controlling.  Being here away from her and away from home was really interesting.  It literally opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could happen for me in life.  So I started working with my uncle.  Carlos owns this very famous restaurant in Raleigh called Dos Taquitos.  He’s been open for, I think, 24 years.  He has been the base of a lot of things that have happened with our family in terms of businesses.  Carlos is a very generous, generous human being.  He’s always taking people in from our family to help them out, whether it’s for a temporary period of time, or to start a partnership or an adventure.  He’s always been very generous. 

I was here with another teenager who was coming from Colombia as well, who had another relation to the family.  We started working at Dos Taquitos.  I remember the first Friday we ever worked — they sent us to run food in the kitchen.  It was such chaos to see all this food running in and out of the kitchen, and these huge trays.  It was like white noise, but I had never experienced that.  It was really overwhelming.  But it was really, really invigorating, too.  I worked with him as a runner for about six months, then I became a server.  Through this time, I realized that maybe going back home was not what I wanted to do in six months, so I stayed for a year.  And then at the year mark, I stayed for another year.  And then after that second year I was like, “I’m not going back home.” I knew it then. I had a strong enough voice, after being here for two years, to say, “I can take care of myself. I’m going to stay.”  So I did that.  

How did you get started in the restaurant business?

I never really thought that I was going to start a restaurant on my own.  I knew I really liked people — I had a way of connecting with folks.  I love food.  I loved the moments and the experiences that we created at the restaurant.  But I wasn’t sure.  At some point, I decided to go back to school and I got a major in fine arts and art history at UNC (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).  I think that time in my life gave me an opportunity to see myself as an artist, and that I really wanted to be creating things.  I did a lot of photography and inspirational work while I was in school.  I met a lot of really interesting people.  After I graduated, I couldn’t really find anything to do that was inspiring to me.  I got married through the process and I had my first kid.  I was working for the City for the Performing Arts Center.  

Then Carlos said, “There is a chance to open up a lunch spot in downtown Raleigh.  Do you want to look at it?”  I think I was six months pregnant with my second child.  I said, “Okay.”  I knew once I became a mother I wanted to do something that I could leave as a legacy for my kids in terms of financial stability.  Growing up that was not something that we had.  I think that’s what drove me to say to Carlos, “Yeah, let’s go take a look at the spot and see what the possibilities are.”  

We put an offer on the building and it was denied.  They took another offer. I had Ana, and then I think when Ana was six months they came back to us and said, “Are you guys still interested in the building?”  We were in a position to do a better negotiation, and we ended up buying it.  We decided that we were going to open this restaurant just for lunch.  Little did I know what I had signed up for.  As soon as word got out that we were going to open a location for Dos Taquitos in downtown Raleigh, people started saying, “Well, you can’t just be open for lunch, you need to be open for dinner.”  So we started revisiting what that would look like.  

Then Martha came into the picture.  Martha was our chef for the first year that the restaurant was open.  She was from Panama and she was working with Carlos at the moment but there wasn’t enough creative space for her to be what she was.  Bringing her into this new venture seemed like the most fitting situation for us.  Then as we were under construction, Carlos reconnected with his high school sweetheart and decided that he could no longer live without this woman.  So, he moved back to Colombia.  I had all kinds of panic moments, because I had never opened a restaurant before.  My youngest one had just turned a year old.  I had a two-year-old – I was 28.  He said, “Okay, I’m out.  I know you can do it.”  And he left.  

That was the biggest gift because even though I had no idea what I was doing, it gave me an opportunity.  I’ve always been a believer that necessity is the biggest space for creativity to happen.  I needed to make sure that it worked so I poured my heart and soul into this project.  

What did you do when he left?

I reached out to Ashley Christensen.  She was such an instrumental part of when we first opened, because she was opening Poole’s at the same time.  I think we opened in September and she opened Poole’s in December.  She had already had another restaurant then, and she had all this experience.  She was just so generous with her time and her contacts and her life.  I felt like, “I’m going to reach out to the people that I know, and we’re just going to go to town and make this work.”  So we did the first year, and then Martha passed away.

A year after you opened, your chef passed away?

Yes.  She had cancer.  She had battled with cancer since she was eighteen.  This was an ongoing thing for her.  She had periods of her life where she was very, very healthy, and then eight months into it she got really sick.  We were trying to make it work so she could continue to help and be there.  But, it was not what was going to happen.  She passed and we were faced with the decision of what to do.  

She had a sous chef but it was hard to work with him and he left soon after Martha passed.  I remember sitting down with my cousin Nathalia, who worked with me until last year, and saying,” What are we going to do?”  I said, “I have this idea that might work.  If you would take over the front of the house, I will take over the kitchen.  I think that we can make it work.” I took over the kitchen the very next day and Nathalia took over the front of the house.  I’ve never worked so hard in my life as those first three years.  

Did you have experience running a kitchen?

I’d never run a kitchen in my life.  I had a lot of creative input into what we were doing, just because I feel like the artist in me was really, really interested in all of what was happening.  But not the day-to-day of running a kitchen.  I remember talking to various people and asking for advice and just going with my gut. 

We just took over and I started organizing things, putting structures in place and really understanding what it was that we were trying to do, how we were going to do it and why we were doing it.  I think that’s what drove me to work in the kitchen and to make it work for everybody else.  We started having fun with it.  It was a lot of hard work, but it was still a lot of fun.  There was a lot of space for creativity for me there and to be the leader that I didn’t know that I was going to be.  I had no idea that this was going to be a possibility for me when I moved to the States.  I found myself in a position where I could fully take charge and make a difference, even if it was just in the lives of the people who were involved in our project at the time.

Talk about being a creative person in the restaurant business. 

Somebody just called me the other day and said, “So, Angela, you’re sort of like a visionary.”  I feel like as an artist, I am that.  I have all these creative ideas.  In my team I’ve always had integrators, and those are the people that actually get things done with the staff.  That’s been my biggest contribution, but also has been my biggest challenge.  I have hundreds of ideas that I think we want to do but in reality putting things into practice, sometimes is not feasible.  

I also have people in my team that hold me accountable and bring me back to the ground by saying, “Hey, these are amazing but maybe we can’t do these right now because of this and this and that. You need to prioritize.”  Being able to be the boss has been great, because I can speak what’s on my mind and what’s in my heart.  And having a team that holds me accountable for what’s actually possible in real life has been what’s made us effective and efficient in what we’re doing.  

It sounds like you looked at Carlos leaving as an opportunity to pursue this with passion and vision in your own way.

The restaurant would be a totally different place if he had been an active partner in the creation of what we do.  Our day-to-day structures of how we run a shift, or how we keep inventory, or how we track schedules, I’ve been able to create that from what I think is best.

Did this create any challenges for you?

The biggest challenge of the restaurant at the beginning was that we named the restaurant Dos Taquitos Centro because we wanted to capitalize on the Dos Taquitos popularity.  But our restaurant was nothing like Dos Taquitos.  I think that there’s a franchise understanding – like everything that is called the same should look the same, smell the same, be the same.  If it’s not, it appears deceiving and inconsistent.

Our menu is totally different.  We’ve gone against something that all Mexican restaurants do in the United States which is giving free chips and salsa.  I said, “We’re not doing that.”  A lot of people when they think about eating Mexican food it’s always this extra sense of fullness because you have overindulged in chips and salsa, and then you don’t really enjoy your meal.  Give yourself the opportunity to have space for dessert or enjoy another cocktail.  It was a really, really intentional decision.  There was a lot of backlash.  But we use higher quality ingredients in everything that we do, so for us it was not something that we could just write off.  There were little things and big things that were decisions that I made that were different.  It was just a different restaurant because he wasn’t here.  It was my opportunity to create this.  As an artist that was great. 

It’s so much easier to see it now, eight years in the making.  At the time I don’t think I was able to recognize it as that — we were just doing.  Just doing, doing, doing, doing, doing.  It’s been an interesting, full ride.

You bought your building.  Was that important to you?

I don’t think that it was important to me.  What I knew coming into this partnership with Carlos was that I wanted to be able to be a partner.  I had nothing to give him but my work.  Whatever deal that we did I wanted to make sure that I was up to being a partner with him.  I knew it was a possibility of investment and could help secure the future of the kids and the family.  At the time it was easier for us to buy the property.  Now I see the value of having made that decision.

A lot of big things that have happened in my life have happened out of chance, like moving to the States.  A lot of relationships I have and a lot of people that I relate myself with happened by chance, by believing that there are always possibilities.  I feel like the restaurant and the building are also on that same theme.  It was sort of by chance, but I really, truly believed in it and threw myself into it.  And now we have these properties in downtown Raleigh.  If nothing else, it was a good investment for us.  

And lease negotiations can be very challenging. Dos Taquitos had to move locations after 23 years in business because of a dispute there with the landlord that could not be resolved.  That has a huge impact on your business.

You use as many local, fresh or organic ingredients as you can, right?

Yes, that’s something else that we’re really getting back to.  The concept of the restaurant was how we could make this cuisine with local and organic ingredients in the area.  We’ve danced around that for many years. “How do we make this work in terms of cost and profitability?”  I have learned to do that in my journey as the main cook of this venture.  In creating those relationships with people, we’re learning how to make this sustainable.  That’s an ongoing evaluation.  “How can we do things more effectively?  Is this something that we can do all the time?”  We realized that we can’t.  So we like to feature a lot of our special events with the relationships that we have with farmers in our local agriculture.  I always continue to revise our menu so we can have those things in there.  That’s been one of my biggest learning curves as a person that manages the kitchen of this restaurant.

You got advice from others when you were starting out.  Do others come to you now asking for advice and mentorship?

I feel like my first line of mentorship is my staff.  I’m really intentional with everything that we do, so we really make a difference in the life of the people that work for us.  Through the years it’s been really beautiful to see that we are actually making a little bit of a difference in the people that work for us and the people that no longer work for us but worked for us at some point.  They come back and share beautiful stories.  I feel like I am more of a mentor to those folks than anything else.

I reach out to my community.  I do a lot of work with the Boys & Girls Club, and in turn we now have people that used to be in their after-school program work for us.  This is an ongoing conversation — creating spaces where there is the possibility to instill confidence in young folks.  

I think a lot about that, because I have two young girls.  I’m always trying to figure out what they need to learn so they can be amazing in whatever it is that they decide they want to do.  Not successful, but just amazing so they can really, really be happy and thrive.  I think after many, many, many conversations, that’s been the conclusion.  If we have a space where they can build confidence they can really take on anything.

What is it you hope that people who are a part of the Centro team take with them?

To not be afraid.  To take what’s there and run with it.  To honor your talents.  To learn how to work as a team and realize that there’s really a lot of power in letting other people be part of your dream, or be part of this journey.  How to be intentional every day when it comes to the shift, when it comes to your relationships, when it comes to everything.  Just how to be intentional about who you are in the world, or who you are through your team, or who you are for your family.  Because it makes a difference.  Everything that you do and everything that you say to anybody in the world makes a difference.  Sometimes that difference can really change their lives.  It could be something little or it could be something huge.  Make sure that the difference that you’re making is a real difference, where you can move somebody into action so they can do whatever it is that they want to do like moving to another country or pursuing a different career or really taking on the possibility of recreating family and relationships.  Have an intentional life.  I feel like that’s what’s made the biggest difference in the way that we work.

Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.

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