Thanks to La Luz, Sonoma has a new food truck
La Luz's microloan committee members agreed that Carlos Mendoza's idea was a strong one.
Fill the gap in the local food truck market by specializing in unique and upscale Mexican recipes. But, at 22, he was the youngest entrepreneur they had ever considered for the still-fledgling loan program.
In the end, they approved his application and thanks to their support, Sonoma Valley has a new food-truck option. La Escondida ('The Hidden One') is now parked in the Barking Dog parking lot seven nights a week.
John Story says the food is terrific. Story served on the microloan committee and he felt that Mendoza was the perfect candidate for a $10,000 loan, despite his youth.
Mendoza is known around town, having worked in the kitchens of El Molino, Sunflower Caffe, Oso and the Sonoma Grille. He attended Altimira Middle School and graduated from Sonoma Valley High in 2013, as did his girlfriend, Miriam Tinoco, who is also helping with the business.
'Carlos grew up here, had a track record working for respected chefs around town and his confidence gave us confidence in him,' said Story. 'I see no reason why he won't succeed.'
La Luz Executive Director Juan Hernandez met Mendoza when the latter was working at Sonoma Grille.
'We started talking and he mentioned his dream of launching a food truck in Sonoma,' said Hernandez. 'He and his business partner had the truck almost ready but they had run out of money to do the final amount of work that was needed to open for business.'
Hernandez urged Mendoza to fill out an application.
'He brought us a well-organized business plan and estimated cash-flow numbers,' said Hernandez. 'He spent a few hours talking to members of our microloan committee and really won them over.'
Even a used food truck is expensive, as much as $60,000 to $90,000 in good condition.
Mendoza's partner, Efrain Balmes, sold his mobile home to come up with the money to buy the truck and Carlos's mother, Rufina Alavez, tapped almost all of their savings.
Alavez will be central to the food truck's success. All of the recipes are hers, as she has spent decades in Sonoma Valley kitchens.
'Her recipes are amazing and unique, and they are what really set us apart,' says Mendoza. 'We are offering different food from other food trucks. We don't use any powders and all of our marinades are made from scratch using fresh ingredients.'
And as the weather warms up, he plans to work with area farmers to add local produce to the menu.
In addition to branching into catering, he also hopes to soon offer a unique line of tamales to be sold in high-end grocery stores in the area.
'There isn't really a branded tamale out there,' he said. Down the road, he would love for his team to open a restaurant.
All of this should be possible, because Mendoza and his team will have built a credit history via the La Luz loan.
'When our microloan recipients pay off their loans, they will then qualify for a bigger loan,' explains Hernandez. 'Getting the first loan is the hardest.
La Luz's microloan program was started in 2015 with a $50,000 grant from Simon and Kimberly Blattner. Story and his wife Pam recently added $50,000 to the fund, as did Tom Perkins.
Exchange Bank holds the funds, facilitates the loans and handles the paperwork. Individuals who receive financial support make payments directly to the bank.
The process is both straight-forward and a huge gamble. The seed money was established as a guarantee fund, so that if a business failed to pay back the loan, the bank would then be able to recover its loss from La Luz.
Businesses can borrow from $1,000 to $10,000 but must pay it back with interest within one to three years. The rates vary from 3 to 4 percent – less than what many banks charge.
The money can be used for a new business or an expansion for needs such as inventory, marketing, equipment, vehicles or general working capital. A loan can't be used for debt consolidation or personal use.
So far, La Luz has made a dozen loans, including loans to a restaurant, wholesale baker, an auto repair shop and a slew of other Springs businesses that hope to launch or expand and are expected to provide employment
'And so far, no one has defaulted on their payment,' said Story
When a loan and interest are paid back, the money goes back into the pot to loan to other businesses.
The program is part of La Luz's broader financial security program which helps clients acquire basic financial skills, file tax returns and navigate Social Security. Business owners have access to financial advice, coaching and workshops and those seeking employment with online job searches, resume preparation and basic computer assistance.
La Luz is looking for more loan applicants, and more funders to help expand the program. To apply for a La Luz microloan call 938-5131.
'This program is really rewarding,' said Hernandez. 'We are getting creative in finding ways to give people opportunities.'