Tri-City Hispanic-owned businesses grow 33%

Business is looking good at El Fat Cat Grill in Kennewick.

Felix Sanchez, who opened the restaurant three months ago, said it has attracted a diverse group of customers to the Mexican-infused American restaurant, where everything is made from scratch.

He is one of what the U.S. Census Bureau said is a growing number of Hispanic business owners in the Tri-Cities.

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in Benton and Franklin counties grew by 33 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to census bureau data released this month.

Franklin County grew from 613 Hispanic-owned businesses to 846, while Benton County jumped from 479 to 603.

Together, the counties had about 8 percent of all the Hispanic-owned businesses in the state by 2007, when the census did its survey of business owners. The state saw a 73 percent increase in the number of Hispanic-owned businesses to 17,795.

Sanchez said he is hoping his hard work will pay off. Whether El Fat Cat Grill is open for years, well, that will be up to its customers and the community.

The restaurant is family-run, although he thinks they likely will need to add an employee within the next month.

"It was hard," he said. "I'm not going to say it was easy."

But, as a small-business owner, he said it's important to stay true to what he wants to offer the community.

Martin Valadez, Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president, said part of the growth in Hispanic business owners likely is linked to the area's changing demographics.

"The Tri-Cities has become a place to move to for Latinos," he said.

The Hispanic population in Franklin County grew by 74 percent between 2000 and 2010, and by 84 percent in Benton County, according to census data.

In that decade, Hispanics have become the majority population in Franklin County, with 56 percent of residents identifying themselves as Hispanic in 2010.

The community has Hanford-related jobs and access to education with Columbia Basin College and Washington State University Tri-Cities to help draw people to the area, Valadez said.

Rick White, Pasco's community and economic development director, said it's important to see the growth in business ownership because it means the owners are reinvesting in the community.

They pay employees, invest to start their business and serve their customers, which circulates money in the community, he said.

White said he thinks the growth measured in the 2007 census survey of business owners likely has continued.

Having more Hispanics in the Tri-Cities creates more demand for entrepreneurs to fill, Valadez said. Some are cultural, such as Mexican bakeries or meat shops, and other are services such as tax aids or insurance.

That's part of why Abby Sanchez and her business partners opened Carniceria Karne MAX on Road 68 in Pasco almost a year ago.

There wasn't a meat market in west Pasco, Abby Sanchez said. So they opened a meat market that sells fresh, high-quality meat and has a Mexican food deli that uses the shop's meat in dishes such as tacos and barbacoas and sells meat-related products such as salsa and spices.

The business also offers catering and is the only one in the region that sells kobe, a type of beef that is more tender and flavorful than other beef, she said.

Sanchez, who has eight employees, said it took a partnership to make the startup business work. They had to remodel the almost 4,000-square-foot store to meet codes, and then get all the needed state and city permits. And they used savings, not a loan.

She said the financial investment was more difficult than navigating how to start the business.

Now, Sanchez said they are reinvesting their profits into their business. Part of their plan includes possibly adding organic meats and offering Mexican vegetarian dishes. And they hope to expand to Seattle.

Valadez said one thing that can help businesses succeed is attracting a diverse customer base. That's something the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is hoping to help businesses with.

Valadez said it appears there are plenty of resources to help someone starting a business in the Tri-Cities. The difficulty can be dealing with three cities and two counties.

But for Leandro Diaz, who opened LD Tires & Auto Service on Fourth Avenue and Court Street in Pasco in February, the challenges mostly have been financial. He used savings to start his shop, and with renting a space, said it can be difficult to make ends meet.

Diaz decided to open his own business because he wanted to stop working in the fields. He had worked as a farm laborer for a decade and then at Pasco's Tire Town for six years.

Diaz's family moved to the Tri-Cities when he was 12. He said he dropped out of high school in ninth grade so he could work to help his mother support his younger brothers.

Right now, Diaz said his business operates with him and two employees.

He hopes to improve his business each year and soon intends to add detailing services. He would like to own his own location and grow with up to six employees.