Holyoke Sees Surge in Entrepreneurship, Business Diversity
Getting Down to Business
Juan Uribe calls it a “family dream.”
He was referring to El Paraiso Colombiano restaurant, an entrepreneurial gambit that is truly a family affair.
Indeed, Juan and his brother, Gilberto, are co-owners and also cook and tend bar. Their father is head chef, and their sister is a waitress. Together, they created and now operate what they believe to be the only Colombian restaurant between here and Hartford, one that opened in the middle of the pandemic, but quickly found its stride nonetheless.
“On grand-opening day, there was a line outside to the corner,” said Juan, adding that, while there have been plenty of challenges with this venture, it has been a huge success to date, drawing patrons from around the block but also across the region and even beyond. “We thought people would come out and support something new, and they have.”
Juan, Gilberto, and other members of the Uribe family are now part of a changing scene on High Street, one of several ‘main’ streets in this city, and also part of an ongoing surge in entrepreneurship that is changing the face of the local business community.
Indeed, where once this city was dominated by large mills that covered several blocks of real estate, it is now marked increasingly by smaller ventures that occupy a storefront or even a desk or cubicle in the incubator space at the EforAll offices, also on High Street.
Jeff Cattell and Joseph Charles are also part of this changing scene. Business and life partners, they launched Paper City Fabrics, a supplier of a wide variety of fine fabrics, in September 2021, and have taken it from an online operation to a storefront on High Street that was most recently home to a law firm. They are completing renovations now and expect to open in the spring.
“Our goal has always been to open a brick-and-mortar storefront,” said Cattell, adding that he and Charles moved to the city four years ago and, after considering several business options, settled on a thrift-store model in what he called the “fiber-arts realm.”
Elaborating, he said the store will accept donations of fabric, everything from cotton to silk, as well as sewing machines and other goods and equipment, and sell them at steep discounts, thus bringing another unique concept to downtown Holyoke and one that speaks to its storied past in many respects.
Paper City Fabrics, El Paraiso Colombiano, and many other new businesses on High Street and beyond, from City Sports Bar to the Artery, a pop-up shop, to Star Dancers Unity (see story on page 50), are, indeed, part of a wave of entrepreneurship in the city, said Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s a lot of old players in Holyoke — there are many established businesses in many sectors, including manufacturing, which has traditionally been our foundation,” she explained. “But we’re seeing a lot of young, new faces as well, people who are investing in our downtown.”
Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll Holyoke and its Spanish equivalent, EparaTodos — an agency that is fueling this wave through accelerator programs, pitch contests, virtual workshops, co-working space, and more — agreed.
She said that the chamber, EforAll, and programs like the Transformative District Initiative, which are funneling dollars into storefront-improvement efforts and other programs, are helping people launch new businesses and then weather the many challenges they will face.
These efforts are also making Holyoke’s business community much more diverse, said both Jordan and Murphy-Romboletti, noting that it looks much like the city itself, with many Hispanics and other minority groups taking on risks and putting their names (figuratively and, in some cases, literally) over the door of buildings on High Street and many other roads.
“Holyoke is such a diverse community, and I think we’re both trying to make sure that our business community reflects our community at large,” said Murphy-Romboletti, who is also an at-large city councilor in Holyoke. “That’s one of the great things about the Holyoke chamber now — you go to one of its monthly networking events, and it looks like the community of Holyoke; it’s very diverse, and Jordan has created a very welcoming environment.”
Food for Thought
Juan Uribe was driving a truck when he and other members of his family decided to pool their talents and resources and open El Paraiso Colombiano.
And he still drives a truck in the morning and sometimes during the day depending on how business it is at the restaurant, because … well, because he needs two jobs at this stage in his life, especially as the restaurant continues to emerge and build its brand.
But, like other members of his family, Uribe desired to be in business for himself, and with some encouragement and learning while doing from EforAll, the dream became a reality.
Like many such ventures, it started with a passion that would become a business.
“We were born and raised here in Holyoke, and friends would come around; we’d have little events — my grandmother would make empanadas, and my father would cook, my mother would cook, everyone would just love to be in our house,” he recalled. “So we decided to make it a business; we all love to cook, and this is a family business.”
A restaurant operating at 351 High St. had to shut down because of COVID, he went on, adding that, while the timing may not have been perfect for launching a new eatery, the family took the plunge.
“We knew we had a good idea going, so we decided to take everything we had and move ahead,” he said. “We knew that, even though there was a pandemic, people still had to eat, and we thought they would come out and support something new.”
That’s the quick version of the story, he said, adding that many pieces to the puzzle had to come together, obviously, as well as a business plan for bringing that ‘something new’ — authentic Colombian cuisine — to Holyoke and the region.
And the learning while doing continues, he said, adding that working for himself is “a lot of work, but it’s something that I love, something that my brother loves. It’s challenging, and it’s hard, but it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Cattell and Charles offered similar sentiments and similar excitement when it comes to being part of the scene on High Street, which is the logical next step for their venture.
“Shopping for fabric is a tactile experience,” Charles said. “Touching and seeing the colors in person and the textures of the fabric is an important part of the buying process.”
The two had been looking for a storefront for more than a year and eventually settled on 330 High St., across the road from El Paraiso Colombiano, a location that affords them the space they need for their retail operation as well as to process donations and create a classroom for sewing lessons. The space has some history — it was once a popular lunch counter — and some intriguing features, such as tin ceilings and a mosaic tile floor that was hidden by carpeting.
“It’s really cool to be able to restore some of that historical perspective,” said Cattell, adding that it’s also cool to be part of a changing dynamic in downtown Holyoke, which is seeing new businesses across many sectors.
Meanwhile, the chamber, EforAll, and other agencies, such as Nuestras Raices, a grassroots urban-agriculture organization, are working collectively to not only create a pipeline of new businesses like these, but help those businesses survive, thrive, and get to the proverbial next level.
For example, EforAll has, in addition to accelerator programs, a number of virtual programs it calls Deep Dives.
In recent months, such dives have been taken into subjects ranging from “Making It in the Food Business” to “Are You Getting All You Can Out of QuickBooks?” to “How to Use LinkedIn to Grow Your Small Business.”
Meanwhile, the chamber, through its many networking programs, is enabling these new small businesses to make the connections they need to grow their portfolios, while also learning from others facing the same challenges.
Indeed, Jordan told BusinessWest that the chamber has an attractive rate for solopreneurs and small businesses, enabling these ventures to be part of a full slate of events that provide invaluable opportunities to not only hand out business cards but also be an active part of a growing, more diverse business community.
“The chamber has created a very welcoming environment, especially for my entrepreneurs who are not familiar with networking and are often so focused on being in the business and not necessarily working on the business,” she explained. “I think the chamber creates this environment where people can step away from the cash register or step away from the kitchen and connect with the community and build those relationships so they can be successful and really be part of the community; that’s been really valuable.”
In addition to helping individuals start a business and move it to the next level, agencies like the chamber and EforAll are working to get them involved in the community and take ownership of efforts to revitalize High Street and, overall, improve the landscape for business in the city.
“Whether it’s a new business or a business that’s been around for decades, we want them to feel like they have the ability to make change and advocate for what they want,” Murphy-Romboletti said. “We’re really being intentional about creating these spaces for them.”
Uribe said that getting involved in the community has been not just part of the business plan, but something important for the family.
Indeed, they are part of the many festivals that place in the city, and Uribe is the founder of the Paper City Food Festival, which staged its second edition last fall on the section of High Street between Appleton and Dwight streets, attracting more than 20 of the city’s restaurants.
“It’s a way for people to come out and see all that this city has to offer,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he engaged the chamber and started the festival to uplift local businesses and celebrate the community’s heritage and diversity.
There was much to celebrate at last October’s food festival, and, similarly, there is much to celebrate with this city’s business community as it turns 150.
There is diversity. There is change. There is vibrancy. And, overall, there is a wider pipeline of new businesses, entrepreneurs like the Uribe family and Jeff Cattell and Joseph Charles.
Together, they are not just filling storefronts on High Street. They are energizing a city and writing an intriguing new chapter in its long and distinguished business history.