There is genuine love in the Rodriguez clan. Jose “West” Rodriguez Jr., 17, wears an expression of rapt admiration as he looks at his father, Jose Rodriguez Sr. It’s the kind of look usually reserved for sports stars or celebrities when you’re a teenager. The Rodriguez family, including West’s mother, Veronica Svetnik, had banded together at the start of the summer to start El Pernil Ecuatoriano, a food vending business. As their name indicates, they specialize in the beloved Ecuadorian and Latin American delicacy, pernil, or slow-cooked pork, which they serve in sandwich form with a complex, tangy sauce made out of onions, spices and tomate de árbol, a popular fruit in Ecuador.
“I got a lot of respect for my dad,” shared West Rodriguez. “They’ve shown me a lot of love, including moving from Ecuador to New York so that I can have a better life.”
Epicenter caught up with Rodriguez Sr., 46, and his son “West” outside the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, where they had set up their stall as part of Met Fest 2023. El Pernil was also one of the 113 businesses (and 250 customers) that were surveyed by Epicenter over a period of five weeks (from Aug. 5 to Sept. 20, 2023). A majority of these small businesses, mainly food vendors, got their start at night markets across the city. This small business ecosystem was the focus of a recent report commissioned by Citizens and released by Epicenter.
Rodriguez says that John Wang and the Queens Night Market (QNM), which Wang founded and where El Pernil first set up shop, had had a huge part in their journey. “John was incredibly helpful, showing me what steps I should take and what permits I need,” said Rodriguez.
Businesses surveyed by Epicenter said that the top three reasons they chose to set up at night markets was to launch a new business, seek community and share family recipes and culture.
Among the attendees surveyed, cultural experiences were the primary draw for their visits. This speaks to the level of authenticity that vendors bring to night markets. For El Pernil, the main product was a family recipe, lovingly handed down. Rodriguez remembers his mother taking him for pork sandwiches back in Ecuador as a reward every time he “did something good.” He shared that he wanted others to feel the same way when they took their first bite of the juicy pulled pork.
At El Pernil, the pork is marinated and then slow cooked over a period of 48 hours.
“I think, something important that people should know is you show up and you get your sandwich and you probably eat it in less than two minutes, but a lot goes into it,” said West, adding that everybody in the family has their own respective lives and jobs but carves out time for their small venture, often beginning to cook at 11 p.m. and working through the night.
Beyond family, friends and community also played a large role in the rise of El Pernil. At their stall at Met Fest, Lewis Rojas and Moh Maghni, both friends of West from high school, helped out with everything from warming the pork to wind-proofing the open sides of the stall using large rolls of cling wrap. According to the Epicenter survey, nearly half of the vendors hired people from their neighborhood or the community they serve. Rodriquez shared that the community played a large role in their early days of entrepreneurship, tasting the food and providing constant encouragement. But interestingly, most of the people who bought their food at night markets were not Ecuadorian, something that gives him immense pride — the ability to share his cuisine and culture with others.
Yet even the best intentions don’t guarantee success for a small business, especially a food vending service. In the survey, businesses cited access to capital as the most important factor, followed by finding physical space and hiring a staff.
Seventy-four percent of businesses said savings were their primary source for funding, followed by business loans (31%) and consumer credit (22%).
“We had some savings,” Rodriguez said. “That’s maybe one of the hardest parts of starting a business.Taking the decision of risking your savings. You need a good budget to survive for the first year.”
According to the report, “Night markets are an on-ramp for prospective small business owners to launch an enterprise with relatively low overhead before expanding to a more permanent brick-and-mortar location.”
Night markets have served as a starting point for dozens of small businesses. This introduction is then carried into the world beyond, with 74% of the customers surveyed saying they wished to shop at the same vendors outside of a night-market setting, breeding loyalty.
Having vendors local to New York City also meant a boost to the food ecosystem, with 79% of the vendors sourcing their produce locally.
“We are really grateful with people, really grateful for all the support from Queens and New York,” shared Rodriguez.
Social media has also played a huge role, with Instagram and Facebook used by most vendors to promote their businesses and for customers to find them. Word of mouth was the second most popular method of disseminating information.
Once a small business like El Pernil has found a foothold, next comes the dream of a brick-and-mortar space.
“We are thinking about having more concession stands, maybe in the stadiums,” said Rodriguez. “Our next step is to make it bigger and to find a spot to do it permanently. A lot of people ask us — where is your shop?”
On expanding to a brick-and-mortar location, the four most important factors for selecting a location were the cost of the location, foot traffic, size and space, and being close to their customer base. Sixty-two percent of the businesses surveyed said they were looking to expand.
“We were really scared. But that is part of taking the next step. We sacrificed the whole summer but we didn’t know what was coming. How big was this going to be? But we’re really happy about it, really happy,” signed off a beaming Rodriguez.