Operations Strategy Success Stories

With Florida SBDC at FIU’s help, small business success stories thrive in North Miami Beach

Small business owner Melissa Guzman offers the beloved foods of her Caribbean homeland – but she veganizes them for healthier living. She should know – it’s helped her, too. Now she wants to expand The Caribe Vegan brand into retail.

Darren Mendoza’s Lutong Pinoy restaurants are wildly popular with the Filipino community, but he wants to broaden his market, aiming especially for non-Filipino millennials.

Kelsey Zamoyski’s Defy Therapy and Wellness in North Miami Beach provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, therapeutic massage, and corporate wellness, all with a holistic approach. Now she has strategic goals for business success.

Florida SBDC at FIU worked with each of these small businesses and 69 more through a partnership the small business development center forged earlier this year with the City of North Miami Beach and its Community Redevelopment Agency to help small businesses in its three major commercial districts thrive.  The 72 North Miami Beach small businesses received more than 550 consulting hours from March 1st through December 14, 2022.  The center also provided trainings for an additional 124 small businesses in the community under the project.

Under the center’s Business Growth and Acceleration Program (BizGAP) initiative, the small business development center provided no-cost, one-on-one consulting to local entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as workshops and training sessions. FSBDC consultants worked directly with area businesses, guiding them in areas of business strategy and development. These businesses also had access to the wider FSBDC at FIU team of 27 consultants, with expertise including startup assistance, government contracting, business development and human resources/operations.

FSBDC at FIU kicked the North Miami Beach partnership by surveyed 152 businesses in the city’s three primary commercial corridors, learning about their needs and providing information about grants and incentives. That kickstarted direct assistance to North Miami Beach businesses, and also created a database that helped identify strategic priorities for action.

“We are proud of this partnership with the North Miami Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the City of North Miami Beach. Under the project, the Florida SBDC at FIU provided hyperlocal consulting and training assistance to North Miami Beach businesses in key corridors and enhanced coordination with existing small business programs in the community,” said Brian Van Hook, regional director of FSBDC at FIU.

Let’s learn more about these three businesses:

THE CARIBE VEGAN: A HEALTHY TASTE OF HOME

Melissa Guzman started researching the benefits of a vegan lifestyle after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 28. In her research, she  learned that animal-derived food products contribute to the inflammation “so I just went cold turkey” going vegan. Eating a plant-based diet helped her manage her disease and feel better.

Guzman, who is of Dominican heritage, then thought about her wider circle of friends and family. She thought if she can start learning how to veganize Caribbean staples it could help people who look like her, including family members, eat healthier but still enjoy the tastes of their homelands that they love.

Guzman moved to Florida from New York in 2019, where the weather would be more favorable for her illness, and invested in a talented vegan chef’s food truck business. But during the pandemic, the chef abandoned the business, so Guzman took it over. The Caribe Vegan is an event-based food truck, servicing vegan festivals, local community events and markets.

“People really love like my Latin-style ‘fried chicken’ and I’m really proud of myself for being able to veganize Dominican style salami because it’s a staple in my culture,” Guzman says. Her cilantro fried rice and pineapple fried rice are also popular.

Now, in addition to the food truck, she would like to launch a retail arm of her business, selling ready-to-enjoy sauces and marinades.

Guzman, whose culinary skills are self-taught, said she battled imposter syndrome but has been inspired to continue with her business because of the reception her food gets.  “It always surprises me when people contact me and they say I really look up to you or you’re like my vegan fairy godmother.”

But this self-learner also tapped support in the community. Guzman enrolled in a two-week bootcamp by Startup FIU Local, a partner of Florida SBDC at FIU. “That bootcamp helped me home in on my goals, and in those two weeks, I was able to come up with recipes for my sauce products. It just really gave me the confidence and the resources to accomplish something I have wanted to do for quite some time.”

The bootcamp also helped prepare her to enter – and excel in — a couple of pitch competitions. At one of those pitch competitions, a judge from Whole Foods gave her valuable advice about increasing brand awareness and positioning her product for success in retail outlets.

Guzman hopes one day her sauces will be in Whole Foods and other grocers. And through the bootcamp, she connected with Florida SBDC at FIU consultants who have continued to advise her in a number of key areas including business strategy.

In development are marinades in several flavors: Latin Herb, spicy pineapple, and cheesy garlic flavor. “I make everything with agave, Himalayan salt, and kelp, which has so many minerals and vitamins for your body. So it’s almost like functional food, where it’s good but also good for you,” Guzman says.

“Something that I definitely learned from FIU is that even though entrepreneurship can feel lonely, I don’t have to be alone because I have access to such wonderful people in these programs.”

Guzman can be contacted through her website, www.thecaribvegan.com, and she posts  on her social channels where her food truck will be and news on the upcoming launch of her sauces.

LUTONG PINOY FILIPINO CUISINE: BROADENING THE MARKET

When an opportunity to buy a North Miami Beach restaurant opened up for Darren Mendoza in 2013, it was not a hard decision. “I really want to introduce Filipino cuisine in America.”

Filipinos flocked to his Lutong Pinoy Filipino Cuisine restaurant and it was so popular, he opened a second larger location –  in  Pembroke Pines – a couple years later. That location was one of Mendoza’s competitors that he bought out. “We opened that location because a lot of Filipinos in Pembroke Pines would drive to North Miami Beach.”

Customers love Lutong Pinoy’s Lumpia, a pork or chicken spring roll, and the Adobo, a stew that is the Philippine’s national dish. Also popular are the restaurants’ Pancit Noodle dishes, their barbecue skewers, and Lechon. Lechon, by the way, is a really big thing in the Philippines. When Anthony Bourdain visited The Philippines he enthusiastically revered the traditional Philippines’ dish. Mendoza’s Halo Halo has been featured in local media as the best dessert in Miami.

Mendoza comes with no culinary background, except for that which came organically, growing up with his grandma in the kitchen and going to local markets with her. Mendoza is also a software developer and early in his career he was stationed in Malaysia with 20 programmers from the Philippines – and they took turns cooking for the whole group to save money. When he moved to the US, he was craving Filipino cuisine, so he continued cooking a lot at home, perfecting his skill set.

Although there are still challenges with worker shortages, the supply chain and rent increases, his two restaurants survived the pandemic. Importantly, he made a couple of important strategic pivots. Like other businesses, he began online ordering and deliveries. He also devoted up to half of his restaurants to sales of Filipino grocery items, creating a new revenue stream.

Darren Mendoza and his mother, Meddy Mendoza, in the Lutong Pinoy  restaurant. His mother helps out with  operations.

Turns out customers loved the grocery. Going forward, Mendoza plans to continue devoting mini-grocery stores in this restaurants. He also put his tech skills to work and created a website for online ordering so he can sell the groceries well beyond South Florida.

Still, the local market he has been going after – until now – was Filipinos, both residents and tourists. But remember his goal to introduce Filipino food to America? That wasn’t going to happen if he didn’t broaden his market.Florida SBDC at FIU first connected with Mendoza when conducting door-to-door canvassing with local officials in North Miami Beach in April 2022.

After registering with the center, he worked closely with Florida SBDC at FIU consultants on growing the business.  In particular, Mendoza has been working on a branding strategy to better capture the millennial, non-Filipino market that he has never targeted before. “Nile from SBDC at FIU] is pushing me all the time. Sometimes we look at how other restaurants became successful and what we could adopt,” Mendoza says. “She opened my mind to a lot of things I never thought about.”

He is now rebranding the North Miami Beach location and hopes to complete that in February and use the rebrand as a model for future locations.

Florida SBDC at FIU also assisted Mendoza with entering the Santander Cultivate Small Business program that focuses on early stage food entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs who are accepted graduate from the program with a fully formulated business plan and pitch in hand, a strong grasp on their target market, cash-flow, financials, growth goals, a financial coach and mentor relationships, and $2,500 in capital grants.

With this assistance, Mendoza is focused on expanding with more restaurants when the time is right, but in the next year, he aims to create brand awareness by introducing the cuisine through farmers markets. Lutong Pinoy will soon be at the Yellow Green market in Hollywood and Mendoza is looking for armers markets in Miami-Dade and in West Palm Beach.to show off the cuisine. The business caters as well, mostly out of the larger Pembroke Pines location. Lutong Pinoy employs about 11 people between the two locations.

“To see non-Filipinos enjoying our food is why I do this business. When they taste it, their mind is blown because of the flavors.”

Find out more: www.lutongpinoyfilipinocuisine.com/

DEFY THERAPY AND WELLNESS: DEFYING THE ODDS

Defy Therapy and Wellness is a fitting name for Kelsey Zamoyski’s business. In high school, she was diagnosed with a condition that is considered an invisible disability.  She was told to just go to college to get a degree for a job that is very minimal. “I said absolutely not, I’m going to school for PT and learn everything I can and one day, I’m going to open up a place so no one has to feel like I did, that there’s no options.”

When a Physical Therapy degree program did not accept her she pursued Occupational Therapy, was accepted, graduated, and a few years after working in practices she opened her own clinic, Defy Therapy and Wellness. “Just because something happened to you doesn’t mean that’s your limitation. That’s the basis behind what we do.”

Zamoyski continues, “We get to know our patients. It’s almost like a family because after a few sessions, you start to hear like oh, what’s going on at home? Or how is the work environment and you start putting these pieces together and we can figure out what are the other areas that need to be optimized? Maybe it’s nutrition, maybe it’s training, maybe it’s stress, all of that influences healing. So we’re looking at the whole picture. We’re very passionate. You can hear my voice I love what I do.”

Kelsey Zamoyski in her Defy Therapy and Wellness Clinic in North Miami Beach.

Defy, an adult outpatient clinic, provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, therapeutic massage and corporate wellness and ergonomics. It also has a dietitian and personal trainer on staff. Defy started out as a one-woman show, but now is a five-person team.

A big challenge has been wearing so many hats as a small business owner and balancing it all. “I have to give kudos to my team  — they are the main reason why we’re doing as well as we’re doing. It’s like the whole team approach.” Up to now the clinic has grown mainly by word of mouth but Zamoyski is starting to focus on marketing.

What’s next? She is aiming to expand into postpartum as well as increasing Defy’s corporate wellness business, online presence and possibly openin

g another clinic or two in the future.

“One of the struggles of  being a small business owner is not having the resources in order to grow and not have having people in my circle with any type of experience in this. That’s where SBDC at FIU has been a big help — to have that expertise, to have someone on my end of the field is very, very helpful.”

SBDC at FIU has helped her with accountability – following up on her action steps — and is a sounding board on different ideas Zamoyski has. SBDC at FIU consultants have also has armed her with knowledge and resources that have helped her with marketing, collaboration efforts, mailing lists, and industry research. They also helped Zamoyski learn what to look out for when hiring her team and onboarding clients, and prompted her to begin automating business functions where possible and setting strategic goals.

Zamoyski  has also learned a great deal in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business program, she said.

Her advice to other entrepreneurs? “Know you’re why because it is going to be a roller coaster but you just got to stay on the ride. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, even when people tell you that you can’t do it. You know there’s a reason why you need to do it. Don’t give up. Keep learning. I’m learning every single day.”

Find out more: defytherapyandwellness.com/

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Florida SBDC at FIU began offering services in Miami-Dade County in 2014 and expanded to Monroe County in October 2018. In 2021, it assisted 2,051 businesses, helped launch 114 new enterprises, helped secure $118 million in capital loans and grants for small businesses, and helped businesses obtain $33 million in government contracts.

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