Armando Ocampo wheels his Cadillac Escalade SUV into the parking lot of the Los Ocampo restaurant he is building on the ground floor of a new apartment building at Chicago Avenue and E. Lake Street.
That is followed by a brief visit several blocks east, where Flannery Construction is renovating a century-old building at 15th Avenue and E. Lake into a two-level catering kitchen and event center that will be called Frida’s in honor of Ocampo’s first grandchild.
Then it is a quick drive downtown to check on things at a Los Ocampo’s outlet in City Center.
The once-impoverished Mexican immigrant, who started out making pizzas at a St. Paul Pizza Hut and driving a truck, now runs a seven-site restaurant business that could hit $10 million in sales within a couple of years. He has built a growing business that employs 150-plus.
He’s confident, grateful and humble. The Cadillac SUV?
“I bought it used,” Ocampo said of the 2004 mint-condition vehicle. “I take care of my things.
“When I came to Minnesota, I just wanted work. I never thought I would be middle class or have many employees. I just wanted a better life for my family. My goal now is to keep building this business and to see my youngest child graduate from college. I will just keep on working.”
Ocampo, 52, still works six days a week, including acting as substitute chef, working on a lease or handling employee issues. He’s done all the jobs.
“I am proud of my business, and to create jobs for more than 150 people, most of them full-time,” Ocampo said. “I have a good time with my employees. And I want them paid properly and on time. They have families, too.”
Ocampo is part of an immigrant-driven restaurant scene that has meant fewer vacant storefronts and more commerce in the Midtown area. He and his wife, Lilia Zagal, opened their first hole-in-the-wall taqueria, serving tacos and burritos mostly to other immigrants in 2003. He kept the truck-driving job that year because he wasn’t sure the restaurant would make it.
They arrived in the Twin Cities from Mexico via a stop in California. They had friends here. They took entrepreneur training at Neighborhood Development Center (NDC). They saved and opened the first shop on 5th Avenue and E. Lake.
Mike Temali, the founder of St. Paul-based NDC, the nonprofit small-business adviser and financier, persuaded Ocampo to open a second outlet in the nearby Midtown Global Market development that NDC and partners opened in the abandoned Sears building on E. Lake in 2006. That was followed by a couple of spots on St. Paul’s East Side. The original Ocampo moved to Chicago and Lake in 2007.
Temali observed that Ocampo listened, learned quickly and worked hard to develop a good business that has helped improve frayed-edged commercial corners with restaurants that have attracted Latinos and other Minnesotans as well.
“They have had remarkable growth and a positive impact on a number of neighborhoods,” Temali said. “They are a prime example of how you build neighborhood economies, employment, tax base and community amenities. And it’s been a real pleasure to watch the next generation grow up in the business.”
Julian Ocampo, 26, the eldest Ocampo child, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business from the University of St. Thomas and works in Los Ocampo management. He can remember washing dishes weekends and summers at the original restaurant. His parents rarely had time to attend his youth soccer games.
“When I was young, I usually only saw my parents in the morning and at night,” Julian Ocampo recalled. “My grandma, my dad’s mom, was with us growing up. She eventually went back to Mexico. But my parents were there for each of us [four] kids.
“Los Ocampo has been successful because my parents made authentic Mexican food that became popular at a small restaurant. They came at the right time. People liked the product. Each restaurant they opened was bigger and had more employees. They cared about them.
“There never was extravagance,” Julian Ocampo said. “They paid their bills and saved for expansion. The money we made went back in the business. We were raised not to be flashy. My dad usually wears the same jeans and black hoodie that says ‘Los Ocampo’ every day.”
The Ocampo family is investing, along with their banker, more than $2 million in the new restaurant on E. Lake Street and the Frida’s event center and catering kitchen. It’s an exciting, calculated venture.
“We’re putting so much into this expansion because there is demand for it,” Julian Ocampo said. “People know our name and our food. We are 16 years into this. We probably will just work on [these two projects] for a few years.”
Armando and Lilia also have provided thousands of dollars in scholarships for children of employees in recent years through the Latino Economic Development Center. That’s worth more to them than a new SUV.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.