Lessons from a food truck owner for international entrepreneurs in NWA
With aromatic smells of earthy cumin and fragrant pepper, alongside bright decorations of yellow, blue and red stripes, line the sides of Los Parceros Colombian Food Truck in Centerton.
Next to the town’s Harps grocery store, Los Parceros sits between other multicultural trucks, offering customers a chance to sit and enjoy their meal under the shade on teal-blue wooden benches. Orlando Joven is an entrepreneur and the owner of Los Parceros that opened last June.
“It began as a family dream that we wanted to create and we want to demonstrate something different, that people know something different about Colombia other than what is seen on Netflix or seen in the series, or from the dark history that our country has or because of who we are," Joven said. "I want to point and have them remember Colombia for the food.”
The name Los Parceros came from the colloquial term, almost exclusively used in Colombian for friend or partner. I asked him where the name came from.
“Parcero comes from the word 'Parciero', it’s a Portuguese term that means friend," Joven said.
He wanted to use a familiar word to would grab both Colombian and American audiences. The term can be heard in the music of artists like Karol G, Maluma and J Balvin - all Medellin natives.
"That's you, you're a partner," Joven said.
He’s originally from Cali, Columbia, and moved with his wife Sandra and his two children a year ago to Lowell. Back home, he worked as a forensic investigator of transit deaths for over a decade. Joven said he loved the profession and the impact he had on his community.
But mounting political unrest left his hometown of Cali in chaos. Violent and financial turmoil rose in 2021 after the height of a costly and lengthy pandemic. Until those barricades and brutality hit a high, Joven said he never envisioned himself living in the U.S. But eventually, he and his family moved to the country.
“The principle reason was for my children," Joven said. "That they would have a better opportunity, have more security, protection, more than anything for them and well for us too."
Once situated in Arkansas, he and his wife started selling food and trying recipes with local friends and a small network of acquaintances.
“For example, we started selling in our house just to acquaintances," Joven said. "We also gave away a lot of food in the sense that we wanted the population and the people to get to know it, so that was one of the challenges of having our food truck."
Joven said opening a business in the nexus of the Midwest and South, where the gem of Northwest Arkansas lies, has made for plenty of lessons for other eager entrepreneurs. Fueled by migration both from fortune-500 companies and a budding international community, Joven said the global-inspired restaurant and food truck industry is a tough market to crack, but it can serve as a fruitful niche for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
Joven said he wanted to make sure Americans were aware of Colombian style cuisine, and this food truck park was a good location for that.
“[Here] there are people from Africa, there are American people, there are people from India, there are people from Central America and South America," Joven said. "So your gastronomic focus has to be on biodiversity, focused on culture, so that is the first limitation.”
I asked him how he markets to the native Colombian group that might want something reminiscent of traditional plates such as Arroz con Pollo, Empanadas and a Bandeja Paisa.
“Many times in an erroneous way, we think that our food has to be only for our compatriots, then there’s the first limitation there," Joven said. “If I am going to open a Colombian restaurant waiting for the Colombian to come to eat, and if he does not come to eat, then I am going to go bankrupt.”
Joven said he believes food should be for everyone, since we are in a multicultural area, that lifts limitations for potential and future business.
For him, the main fuel helping his business grow is passion.
“Whatever you do, do with love," Joven said. "In other words, I think that if you do it with love, it will go well for you, because if you do it reluctantly, it will become a job. But I believe no matter it is what you do, do it with love, perseverance and discipline, because having a business is a bit tough, isn't it?”
He finds it difficult to introduce the North American market to Colombian tastes, but Joven is proud of his work to establish a South American presence in American gastronomy. He hopes it will be easier for the next generation of Colombian business owners to get going in the Arkansan food industry.
“That is what ‘Los Parceros’ is doing," Joven said. "In fact, we are opening the doors to future Colombian businesses, let's put it that way. It will be easier for a second restaurant or other Colombians, because there will be knowledge.”