When Comal Heritage Food Incubator launched four years ago, the program had a lofty mission: Provide immigrant and refugee women in Denver’s Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods with the skills required to open and run a successful food business. Part education, part on-the-job training, and part restaurant, Comal was something new for the Mile High City, and diners soon learned that this little corner of the Taxi development in RiNo was the place to go for Mexican, Salvadoran, Syrian, and other international fare made with care.
Fast forward to October 2020, when, in spite of a strange and dark year, Comal has made good on its goals; the program has infused $650,000 into the community in the form of wages and stipends for its students. And as a result, participants have launched (or are in the process of launching) seven female-owned businesses, including graduate Erika Rojas’ Prieto’s Catering food truck; Sara Gebre’s Ethiopian coffee shop Jebena; and Silvia Hernandez’s La Catrina Grill, which has been cooking meals for Denver Public Schools students and families affected by the pandemic.
But Comal is not about to rest on its laurels, and executive chef Arden Lewis is sharpening the program’s focus to make it even more successful going forward. Some of those shifts won’t be visible to Comal’s fans—like Lewis’ stronger curriculum focus on recipe development and food cost and added support and guidance for the participants’ businesses—but others will be. For starters, Lewis switched up Comal’s menu format and hours when it reopened this summer, drilling the offerings down to a selection of Comal’s greatest hits and serving lunch Tuesday through Friday only; Rojas’s Prieto’s Catering truck is parked outside on Mondays.
“By minimizing what we’ve done at lunch, we’re covering our expenses,” Lewis says. “We’re not where we were last year—we’re looking at a very large dip in revenue. I think we’re in a unique position, being a social enterprise [as part of the nonprofit Focus Points Family Resource Center], whereas if we were purely for profit, we’d have to make some harder decisions.”
For the new menu, each student cook makes a dish showcasing their native regional cuisine. Lately, that has included fan favorites like rotating flavors of gorditas, moles, and flautas.
Lewis is also focused on creating more ventures beyond lunch service, especially with COVID hitting restaurants so hard. Comal has experienced its own pandemic-related struggles and is down to a smaller group of participants as a result. Some women were unable to participate because of homeschooling children, while one was stuck out of the country from March through September.
“We’re trying to create more opportunities for people, but at the same time, we’re giving our participants a realistic view of what it’s like to own a business during hard times. This has been a good example of why you need people to help. It’s not something you can always do on your own. Especially among the immigrant and refugee women we serve, it can be daunting,” Lewis says.
Some new opportunities include bringing prepared foods like salsas, ceviches, and agua chiles to the weekly Lost City Farmers’ Market; selling the produce participants harvest from Comal’s garden; and launching a new meal kit service later this year. As per it’s mission, Comal will continue to do whatever it takes.
BONUS: Celebrate Comal’s fourth anniversary at an outdoor, socially distanced party on Friday, October 16. The drive-in style soirée will feature music, video presentations, and, yes, food (four courses served at your car or table). To allow as many people as possible to join in the fun, there will be two 1.5-hour seatings, at 6 and 8 p.m. Tickets are free, with an optional, suggested donation of $100 per vehicle/table that goes to the Comal Scholarship Fund, which provides seed money to program graduates to launch their businesses. Get in on the festivities by reserving your spot here.