MINNEAPOLIS — Luis Tamay used to run a restaurant at Lake Street's front door. Now, he serves his food from a trailer in an alley.
“Very delicious,” the Ecuadorian immigrant says as he closes a to-go lid on an order of Papi Pollo, a chicken and fries combo popular in his home country.
The trailer is small, with less room to work than in his old restaurant kitchen, but, “We have to make money,” Luis says. “We have to do something.”
El Sabor Chuchi was Luis' old place, part of a strip of mom and pop Lake Street businesses.
Luis’s 12-year-old son, Henry, grew up in the restaurant, clearing tables and helping his dad.
“He used to spend all day there,” Henry says. “I miss it.”
El Sabor Chuchi burned to the ground in the rioting that engulfed Lake Street in the days after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Luis had a bad feeling earlier in the day when he saw nearby businesses being looted.
He was at home that evening, a few blocks away, when his phone rang.
“My friend, he called me, ‘Hey, your restaurant is on fire,’” Luis says. “Me and my family were crying when we saw.”
The restaurant owner had already been struggling with the COVID restrictions that also stole hours from Luis’ wife’s job as a hotel housekeeper.
They’d recently finished $17,000 worth of improvements needed to obtain fire insurance. The restaurant burned before the insurance was in place.
“He stopped eating, he got really sad,” Henry says. “Because all his hard work.”
Hard work was instilled in Luis growing up in Ecuador. At age 11, he left school and his family to work at a banana plantation.
Then, at 19, Luis followed his brother to Minneapolis, settling into Lake Street's Hispanic community.
He washed dishes at a Greek restaurant, learned to cook, and eventually aspired to own a restaurant of his own.
“American dream,” Luis says. “And actually, they come true.”
Now, the trailer represents Luis' dream renewed.
“It's helping a lot,” Henry says, noting the change he’s seen in his father just being back in a kitchen.
The trailer was purchased with a $24,000 grant from the Lake Street Council, which collected donations to help small business owners impacted by the riots.
Luis parked the trailer behind the little grocery store he opened on Lake Street a few weeks before the rioting. Windows were broken and the market burglarized, but Luis’ fledgling grocery store was spared from the fires.
Luis estimates 90% of his food trailer customers are Ecuadorian. They took the loss of his restaurant personally.
Nely Llapa is a regular at the trailer.
“We support him to encourage him to build again,” she says
And Nelly is far from alone. A GoFundMe page started by Luis' nephew has raised more than $100,000.
Luis plans to use the money to get out of the trailer and back in a restaurant.
He's waiting to see what comes of his old leased location, now an empty lot a few steps from his market.
Prior to the Chauvin verdict, he was also leery of more unrest.
“It doesn't feel safe here right now,” he said two weeks before Chauvin’s conviction.
But Luis knows, the time will come.
“You feel good when people are happy, when they eat your food.” He says. “We want to feel that again.”
To some, it’s just a trailer in an alley.
To Luis, it’s a fresh start on a path forward.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Luis' food trailer is located in the alley behind 707 E Lake Street, Minneapolis.