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New Payne Ave. plaza is a labor of love
Sonia Ortega has big dreams.
The fiercely diligent 42-year-old is hoping to make her mark on Payne Avenue, in the building that once held Borgstrom’s Pharmacy at the corner of Jenks and Payne avenues.
As far as she’s concerned, making Plaza Del Sol a bustling marketplace is simply a matter of will and tireless hard work. So she sleeps only four or five hours a night, while pulling 17-hour days.
“This is not a business,” she says, “this is my life.”
Ortega, with the help of her business partner Les Hill, has dropped roughly $800,000 on the 40,000 square-foot building, which she sees as a future hub of activity for East Siders, both in the Latino community and at large.
The place is currently host to a Mexican restaurant emphasizing fresh ingredients, a coffee shop, a clothing boutique, a jewelry store, an El Salvadorian restaurant, a beauty salon, an insurance broker’s office, and a translator.
They’ve all opened in the last two months, filling all the available stalls in the first floor of the building. Women run nearly all of the businesses.
Ortega helped the business owners get started, buying their equipment for them, and continues to work with them daily.
John Vaughn, director of the East Side Neighborhood Development Company, calls Ortega and her dream “a great addition to the avenue.”
He said he sees the project as a way to strengthen the commercial core of the area.
“If you get enough new businesses that are close by each other, they help each other out. They help generate customer traffic for each other,” he explains.
Small start-up businesses
Angelica Perales just opened a coffee shop in the plaza with her husband.
She says the couple decided to give it a shot after hearing Ortega’s idea of a community-oriented space, where business owners share resources and work together to drum up businesses.
Because of that setup, she’s able to use the ovens at the restaurant next door to make baked goods to sell at her shop. Though she’s still figuring out the details of running a business, she says she’s feeling good about it so far.
Sonia’s younger sister, Gabriela Ortega, 37, opened up a restaurant in her sister’s plaza. She said her sister has been a major inspiration for her.
“Whatever your goal is, she’ll be like ‘Go for it.’”
It’s that optimism that encouraged Gabriela to open Senor Sol, a Mexican food place that has recipes she’s carried with her from San Diego, Calif., where she ran a restaurant. She even brought her cooks with her from California.
She says she’s feeling positive about moving, and optimistic about the plaza, where Sonia treats all the businesses like family.
She’s hoping the plaza will be a community resource for Latinos and other East Siders.
Ortega doesn’t plan to stop with the stores already in place -- she’s pushing for more. She’s hoping to put in a meat preparation area, with the idea of opening a meat market. After that, she’s hoping to use the back room of the main floor to hold a wholesale dry goods market.
“I love this building,” she says. “When people see their kids growing, that’s how I look at this building.”
When it’s fully grown, the top floor will hold offices and a giant banquet hall. The hall itself is pretty much ready to go, with a finished hardwood floor, though it needs an elevator connecting it to the first floor to be up to code.
Ortega hopes it will host private events for East Siders, catered by the restaurants below.
She’s also hoping to put in a small gym in the back of the building.
Runs in the family
Ortega grew up in Mexico, and spent parts of her childhood waking early and tending to the family farm that her father kept.
Her father ran the farm tirelessly, she recalls, and was always lovingly pushing his kids to do the same.
He would wake them up early in the morning, hoping to establish a work ethic in the youngsters.
“We worked the fields, we planted corn, we did everything on the farm,” she says.
At the time, she found it annoying.
“Now, I figured out that I’m just like my father,” she says. “He gave us that pride to say ‘You have to do something with your life, otherwise it doesn’t mean much.’”
Though she’s set on success, Ortega’s no stranger to failing.
“This is my second run,” she says, “I already went belly-up.”
She moved from the Twin Cities to San Diego in 2003 to start a Greek restaurant.
But that failed. So, she came back to Minnesota and managed a restaurant, eventually saving up enough to buy a “dirt cheap” house in north Minneapolis.
From there, she began buying houses, fixing them, and selling them, and at the same time running a cleaning business.
Then, the old pharmacy building on Payne Avenue came on the market. Square footage-wise, it looked to be just about the cheapest building in the Twin Cities, she says.
So Hill helped her buy the place for $320,000 and she spent the next seven months fixing it up, in time for this spring’s opening.
“I have had dreams all of my life, and one of my dreams is to help my community cover their needs,” she says.
Hill wasn’t exactly short on words of praise for his business partner.
“She’s very efficient; she’s very dedicated; she has a very high level of integrity; she’s open; and she rewards hard work,” he said.
The two became friends while working in the restaurant industry. They connected after seeing they both had the drive to make things happen, he said.
Hill sort of took on Ortega as an apprentice, playing the role of an advisor.
“She lovingly refers to me as her life coach,” he says.
Les Hill said it was easy to feel confident about backing her financially.
“I don’t know anybody that has a work ethic like hers,” he says.
Building’s troubled past, bright future
Anne DeJoy director of commercial development at ESNDC says the plaza building has had a tumultuous history in recent years.
Before Sonia Ortega picked it up, it was owned by Pedro Flores, a Californian who bought the building with his brother right before the real estate market crashed.
“Pedro’s goal was to turn it into what it is now, a mercado,” she says.
But it never fully came to fruition, despite years of effort.
“He really tried to make a go of it,” she says, before getting behind on the mortgage for the building and filing for bankruptcy.
By contrast, Ortega’s situation looks better she says -- the building was bought at a reasonable price, and Ortega “really upgraded everything to a quality that is very obvious when you walk in the door.”
“In talking with the woman and seeing what she’s done... I think she’s the one that has the wherewithal to do it,” she says.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.