In the nearly three years since it opened, Comal Heritage Food Incubator has become a destination for Denverites craving a homey, hearty weekday lunch. But for the immigrant and refugee women in the kitchen, RiNo’s heritage-food incubator is a journey—one that leads toward a destination of their own making. And Erika Rojas has officially arrived at hers.
The first participant to complete the culinary program run by community nonprofit Focus Points Family Resource Center launched Prieto’s Catering in the spring—much to her own surprise, as it turns out. When she came on board in May 2017, she assumed that “maybe in five, six years I would be ready” to open a business, as she explained to me in an interview conducted partly in translation with assistance from Comal general manager Matthew Vernon. “But then I had the opportunity to buy a food truck, and I thought, ‘I need to grab this moment.’ I don’t think I am ready yet, but I work every day and try every day.”
Her moment has nevertheless been a long time coming. Rojas came to Denver 18 years ago from Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, while pregnant with her first daughter; over the course of the next decade and a half, she became a stay-at-home mother of five who also delivered newspapers at night. But as her children grew, she said, “I decided to do something for me, because I love to cook. And I want to see my kids in college.” (The youngest is now 11; the oldest is indeed headed to college in August.)
To that end, she moved quickly, getting an application for Comal from a friend and joining the crew not 15 days after learning of its existence on televison. She’s since been trained there in every aspect of the food-service industry, from portioning and measuring to health codes to accounting; along the way, she also graduated from the La Receta program at the Mi Casa Resource Center, described by Vernon as a crash course in the mobile-restaurant business for which Comal pays the tuition of advanced students. And in the ultimate show of support, Rojas received $13,000 from a seed-capital fund managed by Focus Points for Comal participants after delivering a business pitch to executives from partnering organizations.
She has clearly put the money to good use. Not only is the Prieto’s Catering truck already booking private events, but it has carved out a regular weekend route. You’ll find Rojas at Skyline Indoor Soccer (2175 S. Bryant St.) on Friday evenings from 7 p.m. to midnight, as well as the corner of Peoria and 11th Avenue in Aurora on Saturdays and Peoria and 30th Avenue on Sundays, both from 11 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. (closing time depends on when “I’m playing soccer later,” she laughs). And she’s even in talks with contractor Kiewit to serve construction workers on the I-70 expansion project.
Her calling card is slow-cooked beef birria, served as a stew with rice or in griddled tacos, per morning time tradition in Guadalajara (“I miss my breakfasts,” she admits); in addition, she offers a daily special, which could be tortas, enchiladas, tamales, or, in cooler weather, posole, and looks forward to expanding the offerings over time.
Which isn’t to say Rojas is fearless. As she admitted to me, “There are times when I’m like, ‘No, I can’t do this, it’s too scary.’ But Matteo [as she calls Matthew Vernon] says, ‘I don’t care. Keep pushing, keep going. Think about your kids, think about your dreams. You can do this—we’ll be here to catch you if anything happens.’”
So will her family, who assists on the truck while receiving the same lessons she has taken to heart at Comal: “When I brought my mom to help me, I was like, ‘You gotta wash your hands, you gotta wear an apron, you gotta wear a hairnet, you gotta make sure your earrings are put away.’ She was like, ‘This is an exaggeration.’ And I said, “No, this is how you run a business. This is what I learned here.’”
Of course, Rojas also discovered the rewards of living in a richly diverse community. “Getting to see how [other people] work and see them get opportunity at the same time—it’s amazing,” she said. “It’d be super-fun to have a place like Comal in the future. When you can give back a little bit, everything’s perfect.”