Many Nevadans have had to reinvent themselves to make it through the pandemic, changing their career paths at a time of uncertainty. The Nevada Independent is sharing stories of people who are trying something new.
If you are a Nevada business owner or worker whose job has been upended by coronavirus, we would love to feature your story. Send an email to [email protected] for consideration.
Chef DJ Flores worked through the worst of the pandemic at a restaurant on the Strip until the day he got sick and eventually was fired.
But the hardships of 2020 became his driving force for something new — a restaurant of his own in 2021.
Flores had been a chef de cuisine in a restaurant on the Strip since its opening in 2017. In October, he got sick with COVID-19 and was out for three weeks. After coming back to work, new management (that came in while he was gone) terminated him.
“As minorities, as Latinos, we are always in the back cooking, always just with a hard work ethic and we want to do our best,” Flores said. “But no one shines light on the Latinos, and it's unfortunate that I couldn't excel in that company.”
He decided to apply that work ethic to create his own restaurant, Milpa. He was backed by friends, family and fellow chefs, inspired by Mexico City restaurants’ quality ingredients and propelled by having something of his own where he can be creative and be his own boss.
“I gotta push through. When I was sick, there was a time I thought I was gonna die, and I lost two friends last year – one in a car accident and another who died in his sleep – so I said ‘hey, you have one time to do something,’” the Las Vegas native said. “It's now or back to the Strip. I don't want to be back at the Strip. That's my mission, that's my drive everyday. I know I need to make this work because I do not want to go back to the Strip.”
Milpa, a casual Mexican food joint in southwest Las Vegas, located at 4226 Durango Drive, Suite 101, opened in January. It is named after a traditional Mayan crop growing system in which corn, squash and beans are interplanted and mutually support each other to grow.
Similar to how the crops help each other grow in milpas, Flores was able to make the restaurant possible with moral support and financial help from friends and family. In return, he wants to help elevate other Latino chefs and give back to the community.
Every day at 7 a.m., the 36-year-old loads cooked yellow or blue maize from Oaxaca, Mexico, with some water into an electric molino, a corn mill. After about a minute, masa drops into a silver platter and is sprinkled with salt to then be rolled up into balls and pressed flat to become tortillas.
His tortilla-making method does not include Maseca, a processed flour, which sets Milpa apart from other Mexican food restaurants. Flores learned the value of whole, quality ingredients during an internship in Mexico City at a renowned restaurant called Quintonil in 2016. Flores says he holds his bowls, salads and tacos to this standard.
Most of Milpa’s dishes are vegetable and grain-based with the option to add grilled adobo chicken, short rib or cilantro lime shrimp. Flores said he doesn’t serve Mexican cuisine, per se, but created his recipes to highlight the flavors of traditional Mexican ingredients.
The breakfast and lunch spot will soon be adding coffee to its menu, thanks to a newly acquired espresso machine, and also recently applied for a beer and wine license to appeal to the dinnertime clientele.
Flores has so far invested about $60,000 into Milpa. The small business does not qualify for any loans or pandemic-related government financial help — including the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant or the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — because it wasn’t open before the pandemic. Flores said he also has been denied personal bank loans.
Milpa will probably not be profitable for about six months, he said, especially with capacity limits and people’s fears about going out. He is currently depending on delivery mobile app orders.
“You can't put yourself down and can't just think about the negatives, you gotta think about the positives,” Flores said. “Luckily, we've been getting busier because people have been noticing us and our quality of produce.”
To gain exposure through word of mouth and social media, Flores holds a Taco Industry Night every Tuesday where a guest chef serves a favorite taco recipe, cross-promoting each of the restaurants.
Next year Flores hopes to add another Milpa location. He said his work ethic comes from his parents, who are originally from Puebla, Mexico, and have businesses of their own.
“Maybe it was part of my DNA to be an entrepreneur and to open up something myself,” he said. “It was always in the back of my head, so maybe this happening just sparked the fire.”