In meat-and-potatoes country, ethnic eateries thrive
Israel Espinosa can remember watching his mother swiftly and effortlessly pile meat, cheese and other traditional ingredients on top of one another, crafting the perfect taco at their home in Mexico. She'd then sell the food from their home at night.
"Every night she'd do that. I remember everybody coming. Everything was homemade," he said.
His mother's recipes and knack for whipping up authentic Mexican meals ended up playing a big role in Espinosa's life.
Today, he is the owner of seven Corona Village restaurants that serve authentic Mexican food, including one in Mitchell. And his recipes for specialty sauces and spicy seasonings come directly from his mother and sisters.
Mitchell is home to a host of other ethnic eateries, including Mexican, Chinese and Italian restaurants. The entrepreneurs who operate the establishments are showing they can succeed against the odds in a region where meat and potatoes reign.
According to the owners, the keys to success are simple and universal: Offer a quality product, provide friendly service and remain consistent.
"I maintain friendly service, and it's clean. It helps," said Danny Prom, owner of Twin Dragon on South Burr Street, one of three Chinese-themed restaurants in Mitchell. The other two are Heng Heng, located downtown, and New China Buffet, on North Main Street.
Shawn Lyons, executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association, said the option to eat at ethnic restaurants is a valuable and growing market for communities -- even in South Dakota, one of the most racially and culturally homogeneous states in the nation.
"The pie is only so big, and the interest is only so big," Lyons said. "Restaurant opportunities look for something unique.
"It does depend on the community and the interest of the consumer. But if they're successful in how they market their menu and their service and their overall atmosphere, that's what will generate success."
A family affair
Nick Terzio, owner of Napoli's, a new Italian eatery on West Havens Avenue in Mitchell, has been tinkering in the kitchen since he was 10, learning to cook from his mother.
Four generations of the Napolis have operated restaurants in Italy, where the family is from.
"It was in our blood. We like cooking," Terzio said.
In the 1990s, Terzio and his brother came to the United States, and the first Napoli's was opened in Texas. Now, eight Napoli's locations are in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. All are managed by Terzio's family.
"It's what I always wanted to do," Terzio said of owning his own restaurant.
Katie Hunhoff, of South Dakota Magazine, visited about 30 ethnic eateries in the state for an article published in the magazine's January/February issue. While eating at the restaurants and visiting with the owners, Hunhoff said she learned that a majority of the dining establishments were family owned and operated.
"It's a family business. They take a lot of pride in that," Hunhoff said. "A lot of the staff is multigenerational."
Kimball natives Rita and Maria Pontiero own Nucci's Italian Bistro and Gelato in Sioux Falls. The mother and daughter duo teamed up nearly six years ago to serve authentic Italian paninis and homemade gelato, the Italian version of ice cream.
Rita Pontiero was born and raised in Italy, but she moved to rural Kimball when she was 24 with her husband.
"Cooking is something I did every day. I had a lot of parties and friends coming in. We'd invite people over," she said. "They loved my food."
She cooked at several restaurants in South Dakota, too, before her daughter approached her with the idea of opening a restaurant.
"I thought it would be something original," Pontiero said of Nucci's. "There's not so much gelato around here, and if you do find some, it's not original."
Prom, who took over ownership of Twin Dragon in 1990, did not have a family history in the restaurant business. Prom went to school for electronic engineering and was working in Denver in a related field when his father approached him about running a restaurant. His father had an acquaintance in Mitchell who was selling Twin Dragon.
"It didn't do so well," Prom said of Twin Dragon at the time. "(My father) wanted a kid to grow up and do business. So, I decided to run this."
Prom took a semester of small business courses in Denver before moving to Mitchell and taking ownership of Twin Dragon in 1990.
"It was very, very difficult," he said of starting out. "But I'm happy now."
John Heng, owner of Heng Heng, has a 10-year background of cooking Chinese food. Originally from Cambodia, he's always enjoyed cooking.
"My life is cooking. I cooked back in Cambodia. In Cambodia most of the women know how to cook, but for me, I just wanted to learn. I thought someday I could own my own business."
Hunhoff said the owners she encountered across the state also had a strong sense of entrepreneurship.
Espinosa worked his way from a cook in Washington to owning his own chain of restaurants. He'd work double shifts and never complain, he said. As he grew older, he learned how to make drinks and studied management skills. He wanted to open his own restaurant.
"I didn't have any money. I remember I had $2,500 saved. I sent money to my mother at home," he said. "I supported my mother and my family."
But he kept working and saving, and his first Mexican eatery opened in a small building with only 10 tables.
For Espinosa, opening his first restaurant in Idaho was challenging.
"I wanted to cry, you know," he said, remembering his bills and income during his first nine months of business.
But learning business sense in addition to making the restaurants authentic, whether it's designing the menus or decorating with ethnic décor, makes for a unique and worthwhile dining experience, Hunhoff said.
It's no secret that South Dakotans are fond of their steak and potatoes. Prom admits it was difficult introducing customers to authentic flavors in his Chinese dishes.
"They don't like a lot of sauces. They want their chicken and just a little soy sauce," he said.
Pontiero ran into similar problems at Nucci's.
"They ask for fried chicken. Americans, they love fried food," Pontiero said. "But we don't have that. We don't have French fries."
Prom offers daily specials to introduce customers to bolder, spicier flavors, and it's worked. Favorite dishes of his customers include cashew and sesame chicken.
The taste customers come back for is not only from the seasonings used, but also the fresh ingredients.
"Everything I make is homemade instead of coming out of the can," Pontiero said. "Everything needs to be fresh."
Terzio said fresh ingredients are key to authentic Italian cooking. Fresh ingredients also are common in South Dakota cuisine, because South Dakotas often grow their own vegetables in gardens and eat locally processed meat.
Espinosa said his meat is freshly cut each morning at Corona Village, and batches of beans are boiled before each shift.
It's taken time to perfect the trade, though. The first time Espinosa made chili, it came out black.
"It's one thing to be a cook and one thing to be a chef. I was a cook before, because I could serve. A chef makes the food," he said. "It's hard."
"I'd call my sisters or my mother and they'd say, 'Now do this and this,' and I'd say, 'OK.'"
Many ethnic-restaurant owners are aware of South Dakota's affinity for beef.
The Pontieros incorporate beef and other meats into their menu. Nucci's serves beef lasagna and Prom has a special beef broccoli dish, too, that he said customers enjoy.
Hunhoff said she noticed that many ethnic eateries change or add to their recipes to be more South Dakota-friendly. She said a Vietnamese restaurant in Sioux Falls offers ground beef or chuck roast as an option in place of tripe -- a meat made from the stomach tissue of oxen and goat.
A growing niche
According to Lyons, ethnic eateries are on the rise.
"We add new restaurant members daily. And in South Dakota, we're seeing an increase in ethnic eateries."
Most of that growth is seen in larger cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City, he said, but in the past three years, smaller South Dakota towns have also seen ethnic restaurants pop up.
"We're seeing a lot of individuals traveling around the country and seeing these ethnic restaurants. Some think of bringing that ethnic experience to South Dakota," Lyons said. "You're also seeing a lot of interest in channels like the Food Network. That spurs interest in these kinds of foods."
Prom said when he first gained ownership, mostly women dined at Twin Dragon.
"I said, what's wrong with men coming to eat Chinese?" he said. "After the women were eating and enjoying it, they brought their families."
He added that the growing business district around his restaurant has increased the number of customers in his restaurant as well.
Hannah Walters, Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau director, said that having a variety of restaurants -- including those that serve ethnic foods -- benefits not only Mitchell residents but also the tourists who visit Mitchell each year.
"Folks that come through Mitchell as visitors particularly come from the east and potentially larger population centers," Walters said. "They are used to seeing a diversity of restaurants and foods."
Still, consistency and a quality product and service are at the root of restaurant success, no matter which ethnicity the food arises from.
"I really commend those local business owners and restaurant owners that are willing to take that step and risk a niche market," Walters said. "Offering ethnic food is a hard business, and the restaurants we have do a fantastic job."