Ay Arepa: Sound familiar?

Despite family tension, both Ay Salsa and Ay Arepa are ready to move forward with new business plans.
Despite family tension, both Ay Salsa and Ay Arepa are ready to move forward with new business plans. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

Three weeks ago, Ernesto Garcia and four employees arrived at the corner of York and Elm Streets with a new food cart: Ay! Arepa.

The name might sound familiar.

In November 2009 Garcia, his brother Franco Gonzales and Gonzales’ wife Yani Acosta started serving Latin American cuisine at their High Street restaurant, ¡Ay! Salsa. But after Gonzales and Acosta began divorce proceedings this spring, Garcia decided the time had come to run his own business, officially leaving Acosta three weeks ago without a head chef and short four employees at a recently expanded restaurant.

The two businesses share similar names, logos and menus. While Gonzales moved back Mexico soon after ¡Ay! Salsa opened, both Acosta and Garcia said that since the business’ recent split, each of them is now focusing on growing their own businesses rather than competing with one another. With ¡Ay! Salsa moving toward a sit-down restaurant feel and Ay! Arepa returning to the grab-and-go model on which ¡Ay! Salsa was originally founded, the two owners now have separate plans for their restaurants as they move forward.

“Business is one thing, and family is another thing,” Acosta said. “I’ll do my thing, and he’ll do his thing.”

Still, four of five students interviewed eating at the new Ay! Arepa cart said they did not realize the company differed from ¡Ay! Salsa. While both Garcia and Acosta were reluctant to talk about the other in a personal or business sense, each is working to build an individual brand in order to succeed.

A FAMILY VENTURE

Garcia said he has always dreamed of being a successful chef with several restaurants.

“You know Bobby Flay?” he prompted, referencing the celebrity chef, “I want to be like him.”

Garcia worked as a cook in Italian, French and Latin American restaurants before he and his brother decided to open ¡Ay! Salsa.

The duo, along with Acosta, launched the restaurant in June 2009 with a single cart on Cedar St. near the Yale School of Medicine. Five months later, the family team had made enough money from the cart to lease the High Street property on which ¡Ay! Salsa is still located.

Acosta has always owned ¡Ay! Salsa, but said her ex-husband served as the leader of the small company. He and Garcia shared the position of head chef, planning the menu and cooking the food while Acosta handled the paperwork and other “backroom management” duties, she said.

But within a month, Gonzales, who could not be reached for comment, returned home to Oaxaca, Mexico. Acosta said that although Gonzales would often call the restaurant to check in, most of the management fell to herself and Garcia.

The couple began divorce proceedings after Gonzales’ return to Mexico, and Acosta assumed greater responsibility in the company, taking on many of her ex-husband’s responsibilities.

“I just fell into his shoes,” Acosta said.

Still, after his brother and Acosta separated in the spring, Garcia said issues arose between himself and Acosta as well. Soon, he began to think about starting his own business.

“A big reason that I left was that I wanted more independence,” Garcia said, adding that their business relations had become strained over prices.

ESTABLISHING INDEPENDENCE

Three weeks ago, Garcia quit ¡Ay! Salsa to start Ay! Arepa. He said that his second business was much easier to start than the first.

“We knew the [permit] system, we had the name and we had the menu, so it was much easier,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the biggest obstacle he faced was finding carts from which to sell his food: he wanted two operational carts, but could only find one to buy for his Cedar St location. He also purchased all the necessary parts to build his second one, located on York St.

So far, Garcia said that business has been very successful, with roughly 150-200 people purchasing food each day from the carts.

“For three weeks, that’s not bad,” Garcia said with a smile.

Two blocks away, though, Acosta was without a head chef and without many staff members, since four of her six employees had left with Garcia. But she quickly found a replacement chef named Jason Thorp, whom she said she trusts with the future of her company.

“Saturday, [Garcia] finished, and Monday we had a whole new crew,” Acosta said, “but we had a good group and it worked out. Look at this: two or three weeks later, we’re still open.”

Thorp interjected, “That’s because they like the food!”

The new head chef added that his biggest goal has been changing the menu, especially since Garcia is now selling similar items for lower prices. Because the seating area was expanded in February this year, the restaurant has higher prices but Thorp said he is exploring more vegetarian options.

“I’m trying to move the menu in a new direction,” Thorp said. “When people come here, it’s going to be different.”

According to Thorp, business has been “real steady,” even with the quick turnover of staff.

With the restaurant’s future in flux, Acosta said she is too busy to spend time worrying about Garcia’s new business and wants to focus on her own.

“There’s nothing I can really do. I’d waste more energy fighting over it than if I just let it be,” she said. “I’m really not into feud.”

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