Sandra Carrasco Quezada
Sandra Carrasco Quezada

A few years ago, when Sandra Carrasco Quezada moved to Springdale and wanted to go out to eat, she almost always had to drive outside the city limits to find whatever she was craving.

That’s how she and her sister came up with an idea to open their own restaurant, which was completely modeled on providing the kind of food she would want to eat herself.

Quezada’s influence extends far beyond the community she serves with her family restaurant now. As director of Latinx Development at FORGE Community Loan, she helps other immigrants and members of the Hispanic community with the many technical details that go into securing crucial funding for their businesses. She’s also a member of EparaTodos, a nonprofit that creates economic opportunities for entrepreneurs of color. The combination is how her passion for helping first-generation Hispanics start or grow businesses manifests itself.

When Quezada tried to open her brunch business Bites & Bowls with her sister, she was a brand new mother who didn’t have any collateral.

“No one wants to finance (that),” she says. “I didn’t know anything about how the system works.”

Quezada is an industrial engineer by training. She knew how to improve operations and felt like she had a good business plan. But with all her savings having recently gone to hospital bills for the birth of her son, a husband who was working on his doctorate and a sister who handled food service, they didn’t have much money among the three of them. And the numbers work fell to Quezada.

She was familiar with the process of getting loans during her time working in engineering and thought the process might be similar on the business side.

“I thought ‘I can get a loan … I could get the money,’ but it wasn’t that way,” she says. “We went to a couple of banks, and they technically gave us the silent ‘no.’ They didn’t reply after an initial visit to see what you’re doing.”

Bill Fox was working at the University of Arkansas Small Business Development Center when Quezada and her sister, Laura, approached him with the business idea. They talked over the business plan, financing options and the challenges of running a restaurant.

“Sandra claims I tried to talk her out of it, but I don’t think I did,” Fox says. “They were pretty determined to do it. Even if I had said, ‘Don’t do this, this is nuts,’ they would have done it anyway.”

“She’s a go-getter, that’s one thing I admire about her,” says Luis Martinez, a friend who has known Quezada since high school. “She knows what she wants and goes for it.”

Fox says they presented a really unique idea for a menu that he had never seen before, and it was on the cusp of the rise of foodie culture, both of which were in their favor.

Most everything was waffles — sweet waffles, savory waffles, each with a special culinary twist that added in flavors they were familiar with from their home back in Chihuahua, Mexico. Not only was it something the area didn’t already have available, it was also something they could do with relatively little money.

Realizing they didn’t have much capital available to them, Sandra and her sister accepted a loan agreement from their father for $25,000. A Kiva loan gave them $5,000 more. So with $30,000 they began their restaurant by creating a menu that didn’t require a stove or an oven, thereby bypassing the ordinarily necessary and expensive kitchen hood.

“They didn’t have a whole lot of cash, but … regardless of finances, they wanted it to be small and manageable,” Fox says. He notes that Quezada and her sister were very practical in terms of the scale of the business from the beginning. “People have dreams, but they don’t necessarily think of the practical side of what they’re trying to do and what it will cost them … to operate something like this. One reason I thought they’d be able to do it was that they had that approach to the whole process.”

The idea was a family-friendly, family-run business. Fox thought it was a good idea and not a pie-in-the-sky dream, either.

The sisters pulled together their equipment: three waffle makers — one of which turned out to actually be a panini maker; a refrigerator they “stole” from their mother’s garage; and Sandra’s very own kitchen table. They found a rental space in east Springdale, where the rates were lower than other areas of Northwest Arkansas, and they did everything to cut costs, like reusing sanitizer bottles and operating with a square reader rather than getting a computer system. That way the actual monetary investment could go to the buildout, hiring electricians and plumbers to get the location ready for service.

Quezada and her sister realized their dream of opening a restaurant they would want to eat at when they opened Bites & Bowls in a 1,000-square-foot space in 2017.

The pair started with a dozen seats and now have two dozen and high hopes to buy land and build a new, larger location — all while Quezada continues to help others get their businesses to take off.

“Opening Bites & Bowls has not been an easy ride, but we have learned so much, and Sandra is always willing to share that experience with anyone who asks, because why (should) people have to go the hard road when we can share our experience,” says Laura Carrasco, Quezada’s sister. “I couldn’t see myself with a better business partner than her. No matter what crazy ideas we come up with, we always listen and understand each other.”

BACKING BUSINESSES

FORGE is the oldest revolving community loan fund in the Natural State. The Huntsville nonprofit was founded in 1988 and helps primarily low-income individuals with technical assistance, business development training and microlending, according to its website.

Originally it was geared toward organic farming, Quezada says, but in 2017 it began to diversify and serve more people, which is where she came in.

Among the things she adds to the organization is the ability to truly get across to local banks the function of businesses that are difficult to explain because there are no American equivalents for them. For example, one of her applicants is a person who does something that loosely translates to holy stick healing, a process of cleansing a person’s vibe or aura after something unsavory has happened to them.

“That’s technically not something that would get approved in a (local) bank, so how do you make that money?” Quezada says. One of the first loans she granted was to a granite company that had big contracts but needed a little capital for the first few months of inventory. “The numbers seemed right … and that (money) really changed their life.”

Now the FORGE portfolio has 300 businesses, with microloans up to $50,000 but with an average of $30,000 — the very number that Sandra started her business with.

Although the Hispanic community makes up about 20% of Northwest Arkansas, there weren’t many among them who owned a business, she says. Quezada joined the FORGE team in 2021 in hopes that she could provide education for getting the right resources, laying the groundwork for more Hispanic businesses to get off the ground.

UNDERSTANDING TECHNOLOGY

“People get intimidated going to a bank or to make a business plan,” Quezada says. The barriers vary but include difficulty with the English language and understanding technology. While many people assume most people use a computer in day-to-day life by now, it often isn’t the case for many in her community.

“If I’m not going to work for my community, I need to be on the ground helping them,” Quezada says. While her average client may not be computer savvy yet, they often know their business inside and out, which makes closing the gap with documents and applications fairly straightforward from her perspective. Maybe “he’s good with his numbers, working on projections, and he’ll tell me to the penny. He just doesn’t have (those numbers) in a spreadsheet.”

Quezada fits in loan applicants as their needs arise, so the work varies a lot week to week. Sometimes she’ll get no calls, while at other times, she may get up to five starting the process of applying. She’s a bit of a Swiss army knife in figuring out what loan applicants need and supplying them with it.

Ordinarily it starts with an informal visit, just Quezada and the applicant meeting in a coffee shop or even Quezada’s home, as she explains the full process of applying for a microloan from FORGE. She’ll give them a paper application in Spanish and take time with explanations and examples. If they’re ready on the spot, she often types it in while they write it on the paper, but many times it can take two or more meetings to be ready with all the necessary numbers and information.

Quezada then offers more technical assistance, such as helping an applicant come up with a marketing plan or running multiple scenarios to ensure they’re ready for whatever comes their potential business’ way next. She also points them to other resources, like the ever growing number of seminars offered in Spanish by local Chambers of Commerce.

On average it takes a month or two before the loan is approved, but it can happen in as little as a week.

‘SHE LISTENS’

“One of Sandra’s strengths is that she likes to analyze things, she’s good at paying attention to others, she listens … others listen only to what they want,” Martinez says, emphasizing that Quezada is passionate about providing community resources. Martinez sought her help recently with a burgeoning business idea he had. “We have one of those relationships that we can be open about details and what happens next. People (often) want to keep it to themselves when it comes to business, but we can trust each other.”

Martinez says after meeting a month ago, Quezada provided him with a lot of information he didn’t have before, information that went well beyond the business basics he had picked up and helped him to understand it with greater depth.

Ana Gabriela Ortiz says she met Quezada while the two were taking a computer class at Northwest Arkansas Community College but has formed a deeper connection with her in recent years because of their mutual interest in business support.

“I would invite other ladies to come to hangouts, and it was fun to hear about challenges we all had in our businesses and how we were able to overcome them,” Ortiz says. “We would advise each other and offer support. Something I love about Sandra is her perseverance.

“She is always ready with numbers and goals to tackle obstacles.”

Fox says applicants trust Quezada for many reasons.

“When talking to potential borrowers, Sandra comes from a place of experience,” Fox says. “She’s doing (business herself) now; as far as challenges on a daily basis, she can relate to those of our borrowers. She’s an immigrant and has gone through that process and knows how difficult that can be.”

Valuable to borrowers too is her workforce experience in health care and engineering. Despite her title, Quezada works with borrowers of all backgrounds, though she is particularly plugged into the Hispanic community and has built a strong network there.

“People trust her, there’s no reason not to,” Fox says. “When dealing with people’s finances, businesses and dreams, trust is important. Sandra engenders trust with borrowers and co-workers.”

A SENSE OF BELONGING

Quezada spent most of her childhood growing up in the desert of northern Mexico, where most of her family members owned businesses.

“We worked since the time that you learned how to add and subtract,” Quezada says. Her very first job was at her uncle’s shop, where as a third-grader she sold candies and other things from 4-8 p.m.

Her mother owned a fish and grocery store, and every Easter coincided with a sort of spring break from school, which meant an especially busy time where Quezada, her sister and the rest of the family was expected to work extra hours. “I don’t remember having a time when I didn’t work,” she says.

School in Chihuahua meant spending fewer hours in classrooms than U.S. schools, and the whole thing was more social, from the revolving carpools among the mothers to the group style projects that cropped up far more often than individual homework.

Art was Quezada’s main focus, but when she told her chemical engineer father that’s what she wanted to study, he told her flatly that that wasn’t going to pay the bills, so she set her sights on business. Quezada was 17 when her parents moved her and her sister to the United States. She had grown up taking English classes but hadn’t realized they would be put to such crucial use.

“My parents wanted a better future for us,” Quezada says. “He wanted us to know there is more. My dad is a really quiet man, a smart guy … he would always tell me to have good grades and learn English.”

Coming to America just in time for her senior year meant quite a culture shock and the realization that if she were going to study business in the United States, her language skills would need to improve.

SHE FELT INTIMIDATED

She enrolled in the Spring International Language Center at the University of Arkansas to prepare her English skills for college, but she still felt intimidated. She felt like her language wasn’t up to speed for business college, but her math skills were scored quite high.

It earned her scholarships to the UA College of Engineering, where she felt she fit in better with the diverse mix of students and studied industrial engineering — a good fit since the discipline is used in so many businesses. But after graduation, her intention was to return to Mexico.

“When I moved here, it was hard at the beginning and my plan was to leave … and go back to Mexico or somewhere in Texas, closer to home,” she says. “Four or so years, ‘Yes, thank you, U.S.,’ and I could go back home. But … everything started making sense when I got out into the world.”

Quezada began to get a sense that maybe she was cut out for the corporate world and entertained notions of perhaps working for Walmart International one day. She had no plans for family or marriage, but while studying abroad in Turkey her senior year of college, she met Sina, an Iranian who was working on his master’s degree there. They both loved to travel, and she noticed that he shared a habit of keeping a fast pace like herself, so she began to imagine their life together.

They conducted their romance long distance for a time when she returned to the States and accepted a job with Lockheed Martin in Camden, but by the end of the year she met his parents, an official step toward marriage in Iranian culture.

Their wedding was a simple one in Las Vegas, where they spent a weekend, and when the couple returned they celebrated with a small brunch — Sandra’s favorite meal — with the menu created by her sister.

The two resolved to stay in Arkansas as Sina did his doctoral work, but by the time he finished it in 2020, Quezada had put down roots through her business and soon she would find even more empowerment through work at FORGE.

“As a woman in Mexico, you’re just taught to be quiet and not make trouble, stay strong and defend your point or someone will decide for you,” Quezada says. FORGE is “one of the places I can fully say what I think even though I’m the only woman of color. I know I won’t be judged.”

Putting in the time to really know the people of Springdale and the surrounding areas has ensured her business a certain level of loyalty or success.

“If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re not part of the community, it’s hard to get the job done. You won’t connect and know the challenges they are facing,” she says. “After opening (Bites & Bowls) … I finally felt like I belonged. I don’t see myself leaving now.”

SELF PORTRAIT

Sandra Quezada

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: June 26, 1990, Delicias Chihuahua, Mexico

• FAMILY: Husband Sina Dadgar; daughter Lilly Fernanda Dadgar, deceased; son Jahangir Dadgar, 4

• A TYPICAL SATURDAY NIGHT FOR ME INCLUDES: Watching a movie after cooking dinner with the family.

• THE LAST SHOW I BINGED ON TELEVISION WAS: “The Queen’s Gambit.”

• THE BEST ADVICE I’VE EVER RECEIVED IS: “Keep it simple.” It applies to personal and professional life.

• FANTASY DINNER GUESTS: Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso and Rufino Tamayo

• PEOPLE MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO FIND OUT: I wanted to major in art for my undergraduate studies.

• THE BIGGEST LIFE LESSON I EVER LEARNED WAS: Some things are simply out of your control.

• THE QUESTION PEOPLE ASK ME THE MOST IS: Where are you from?

• THE BEST MEMORY FROM MY CHILDHOOD IS: Playing with my cousins at my grandma’s house on Sunday evenings.

• THE MOST DELICIOUS MEAL I’VE EVER HAD: There’s no easy choice, given that I’m a foodie, but one of the most scrumptious meals I’ve ever eaten was Sicilian pizza. My uncle, who was born in Palmero, Italy, made some of the tastiest Italian dishes. He grew the tomatoes and basil in his garden to make the fresh salsa and the bread was baked to perfection — fluffy and spongy.

• THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE ME: Analytical, creative and passionate

  photo  “People trust her, there’s no reason not to. When dealing with people’s finances, businesses and dreams, trust is important. Sandra engenders trust with borrowers and co-workers.” — Bill Fox, FORGE Community Loan Fund about Sandra Quezada (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
 
 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here