On the morning of May 15, a sunny Saturday, I walked up to a small gathering of people celebrating the opening of Tikal Café, a new coffee and brunch spot on the corner of Decatur Street and Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick. There to greet me was Carolina Hernandez, the owner of the cafe, wearing a traditional Guatemalan dress, covered in bright, eye-catching floral designs.
“Do you like my dress?” asked Hernandez, who I was just meeting for the first time. “It’s handmade!”
After offering me a fruit bowl and a mimosa, Hernandez told me that she is originally from Guatemala City, Guatemala. She crossed the U.S. border with her mother in 2008. Now a documented citizen, Hernandez has been working towards opening her own business for over a decade.
“For more than 10 years, I worked two and sometimes three jobs, as a housekeeper, a busser and as a server, so that I could save up to open my own business,” said Hernandez. “Sometimes I would work 18-hour days. I would try to survive with all of the money I made as a server and save everything that I made as a housekeeper.”
“I wanted to become my own boss, she added. “I worked for a lot of nice people, but there were also very racist people, people who made me feel bad. I decided that if I wanted to get out, I would have to work hard, save money and open my own business.”
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, Hernandez lost all of her jobs. She went from working practically non-stop to “sitting on the couch and watching Netflix.”
“Even though I was collecting unemployment, I thought, ‘this is not for me, doing nothing with my life.’ I got depressed,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez saw her opportunity and took it. She secured a business partner, who currently serves as the chef at the cafe, picked out a location just a few blocks away from where she lives and built the place from the ground up.
“I designed it by myself,” said Hernandez. “I chose the colors, the lights and even the coffee. When I first started, it was a completely empty space.”
Those living in the Northwest corner of Bushwick may argue that there is no shortage of coffee shops and brunch restaurants in the neighborhood. But near Decatur Street, where much of the population is Latinx, such places are much more scarce.
Hernandez, who self describes as a “brunch lover,” wanted to open something for her neighbors and community members to enjoy. Tikal Café fills that role. It’s an affordable and luxurious spot for locals to grab a fresh coffee and a delicious, healthy meal.
Tikal Café offers a wide variety of items on its all-vegetarian menu, including everything from coffee, egg sandwiches and avocado toast to spaghetti squash, basil linguini and cauliflower steak.
Personally, I can say that the coffee, which she sources from Sweetleaf coffee roasters in Long Island City, is delicious.
At the grand opening event, there were several elected officials and politicians, including District Leader Samy Nemir Olivares, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and city council candidate Sandy Nurse, each of whom took a moment to tell a story.
Olivares spoke about the time he met Hernandez, just a few weeks ago. Walking into a different local coffee shop, Olivares spotted Hernandez working behind the counter. He introduced himself to Hernandez, who he thought was the new employee. However, Hernandez quickly corrected Olivares that she wasn’t a new hire. Instead, she owned her own coffee shop and was simply helping out a friend in need.
“This is the quality of human being that Carolina is,” said Olivares.
Rep. Velázquez chimed in: “Carolina is a woman who faced the systemic inequalities that were laid bare by this pandemic. She lost her jobs. In the process, she knew that she only had one option, and that was to make her dream of entrepreneurship a reality.”
“Carolina makes New York New York. That is who we are, neighbors helping neighbors,” she added. “This is the story that I take with me to Washington, to say that immigrants come here to build a better life for themselves, their children and their families.”
Nurse spoke about the challenges of opening a business as a minority woman. Having opened up three small businesses of her own, Nurse spoke from experience.
“I know the challenges it takes as a woman and someone who doesn’t have a master’s degree in business management,” she said. “I know the challenges we face in terms of negotiating with landlords, the technical leases and the assistance that we need.”
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Top image: Jackson Schroeder
Body images: Alec Meeker
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