Barney Santos sees the potential in Montebello

Barney Santos is opening BLVD MRKT in Montebello, a food hall and business incubator. Photo by Alex Dominguez

Barney Santos is opening BLVD MRKT in Montebello, a food hall and business incubator. Photo by Alex Dominguez

MONTEBELLO — Entrepreneur Barney Santos took a look at the city of Montebello, and something wasn’t sitting right; the city wasn’t meeting its full potential.

“We noticed about six years ago when we first moved to Montebello that there were a lot of empty storefronts, graffiti, trash, broken windows, just traditional blithe like you would see in economically disadvantaged communities,” said Santos. “I’m not saying that Montebello is an economically disadvantaged community, but I’m saying it had a lot of wear and tear and signs that you would normally associate it with.”

After growing up in Downey and moving to Los Angeles during the revitalization period of Downtown LA, Santos, 35, says that what he was experiencing in Montebello was a “stark comparison.”

“I kept asking myself why is it this way, and why are communities like Montebello like this,” said Santos. “It wasn’t something unique to Montebello; you see a lot of communities that have traditionally lower average income per household who are predominately communities of color, and they experience this type of scenario.”

“It made us ask ourselves ‘why does it have to be this way?’ Why can’t a community like Montebello maintain its cultural identity, its relevance to the community, but also progressively become better from an economic standpoint and evolve as communities all do.”

With an eye to help the city course correct, Santos and his partners set off to work, first spending about a year to speak to members of the community – everyone from local government, to business owners, to those civically involved, to nonprofits – to try and identify why Montebello sat in the state that it currently did.

“What we identified was that a lot of people 20-40 were basically going to school, getting educated - or at the very least getting better jobs, traveling more, expanding their cultural palate, their experience – and what was going on was their desires, their expectations were changing,” said Santos. “What we noticed was a lot of times people were saying, ‘we want this experience, we want this, we want that, and our community that we live in doesn’t have that.’ Ultimately, it was a supply and demand problem…. what it did was it forced a lot of people to leave the community and to spend their money in... areas that are a lot more economically advanced.”

The best way to combat the supply problem, Santos’s team decided, was through the utilization of the community members themselves.

“The people who are from 20 to 40 who are from those communities understand that market and can fill that gap,” said Santos.

Unfortunately, there was still a significant hurdle to leap for that demographic.

“They experience socio-economic issues,” said Santos. “Things like having bad credit, not having enough cash flow, having poor cash reserves or money in the bank, no family members or friends, entrepreneurs or business people, mentors, no access to capital. All that stuff combined you think that’s a lot of hurdles to jump over to get to a place where you can actually open up a storefront.”

That is where Santos and his partners hope that BLVD MRKT will come into play.

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Located at 520 Whittier Blvd., BLVD MRKT will be a food hall combined with a business incubator. Those wishing to start their own culinary business will have the opportunity to groom and cultivate their brand and draw a customer base, while learning the ins and outs of how to operate their business and developing a strong foundation from which to approach banks and investors when it is time to branch out.

“We know the power of urban planning and the power of economic development in downtowns, so we saw this beautiful building and this empty lot that was just sitting there in horrible shape…we really started exploring that idea of what we could do with this project and the city,” said Santos.

“We’re taking four to eight businesses and startup companies and helping them really accelerate their company…We’re creating our own farming system the way baseball and basketball has; it’s a pipeline.”

Photo courtesy Johanna Torres

Photo courtesy Johanna Torres

Santos says that through BLVD MRKT, they are hoping to access and find people within the community who have talent and have run a pop-up or catering business as a “side hustle” who may be looking to make it their main focus.

With BLVD MRKT, those individuals would have access to coaching, workshops, training, and mentorships for a total of two years, effectively formalizing their business and “get them to the marketplace.”

“Ultimately at the end of the two-year period, they would spin out of their incubator and go back into the marketplace, and hopefully apply for a SBA loan or traditional lending loan because they’re applying for growth funding, growth capital instead of startup capital,” said Santos. “Talk to any emerging restaurant person, they’ll tell you it’s almost impossible to get funding to open up a restaurant as a new entrepreneur because nobody wants to lend, it’s too risky. To apply for growth capital to grow your existing company, that’s a lot easier to do because it’s based on numbers that already exist. Taking people that are un-bankable, and making them bankable.”

BLVD MRKT is currently taking applications for its first group of businesses, with interest forms due on April 1 by 5 p.m. For more information, visit blvdmrkt.com/incubator.

NewsAlex Dominguez