HUMBOLDT PARK — Like many Chicagoans, Janellie Rodriguez decided to follow her passion during the pandemic.
After years of working as a nurse, Rodriguez started selling freshly baked pound cakes on Humboldt Park’s Division Street with her chef husband. The desserts took off, and the two added kabobs, or pinchos, and arroz gon gandules — a traditional Puerto Rican rice dish — to their pop-up menu, drawing inspiration from their Puerto Rican roots.
“The cakes were great, they were a hit, but I was noticing around nobody had food, so I was like, ‘How about we take out a grill do some kabobs?’ In Puerto Rico, that’s something a lot of people do. So we started kabobs, added rice, and slowly everybody was coming back, like, ‘Oh my god, this tastes so good,'” Rodriguez said.
The success led to a stint at ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo, a market and business incubator.With support from that program and other local organizations, Rodriguez and her husband launched Janellie’s Kitchen, 2617 W. Division St., an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant a few doors down from the market and not far from where Rodriguez grew up.
Janellie’s Kitchen took over the former La Plena Restaurant spot this spring, joining a legacy of Puerto Rican businesses in the neighborhood.
Decorated with Puerto Rican murals, flags and ephemera, Janellie’s Kitchen serves a menu of traditional Puerto Rican dishes made with fresh ingredients, like alcapurrias, chicharrones de pollos and mofongo.
Rodriguez uses recipes she picked up from relatives and friends in Puerto Rico, mainly from her parents’ hometown of San Lorenzo, a small mountainous town in the central region of the island.
“I learned watching grandmas and older women and aunts in Puerto Rico,” she said. “My friend’s mom had a little business — a ‘chinchorro’ they call it — and I saw her as she got up everyday and cooked. And by 12 p.m., she was home. … It was pretty awesome to see. And so simple — the food. It doesn’t have to be fancy.”
“You can’t have a high-end Puerto Rican restaurant because Puerto Rican food is not high-end. It’s humble food. They make a meal out of scraps. That’s the beauty of it.”
Jibarito sliders are the hottest menu item so far, Rodriguez said. Like regular sliders, jibarito sliders are miniature jibaritos. Rodriguez said the Puerto Rican sandwiches can get messy, and she wanted to make the experience of eating one more manageable.
Janellie’s Kitchen doesn’t have a display case of fritters and other Puerto Rican fried foods like other traditional restaurants. Rodriguez and her husband, Moisés Hernandez Vizcorrondo, a chef who went to St. Augustine College for culinary school, make all of the frituras, or fried delicacies, fresh.
Still, the two kept prices affordable to ensure that people from all backgrounds feel welcome, Rodriguez said. Most dishes on the menu are in the $3-$7 range, and Rodriguez said if someone came into the restaurant and didn’t have any money, she’d happily give them free food.
“Why be stingy with something we all need to survive?” she said.
Janellie’s Kitchen is a success story for Mercado del Pueblo, which was designed to help small business owners launch their careers and bring more people to Humboldt Park’s Paseo Boricua.
The market at 2559 W. Division St. is run by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and funded through the city’s INVEST South/West program, Small Business Improvement Fund, Chicago Business Center and Neighborhood Business Development Center.
Small business owners and entrepreneurs like Rodriguez and her husband are invited to set up shop rent-free. They also get advice and resources to grow their businesses and strike out on their own.
Rodriguez participated in the program’s outdoor market and then vended at the indoor market for more than a year, thinking she’d open a food truck next. But the program helped her think bigger, she said.
Rodriguez was awarded a $15,000 small business loan through her Mercado del Pueblo connections. She also developed the business skills necessary to open a restaurant, she said. Rodriguez and her husband ran a pizzeria for a few years when they lived in Puerto Rico, but they started fresh when they moved back to Chicago in 2014.
“It helped me establish clientele and consistency and just showing up every weekend,” Rodriguez said of Mercado del Pueblo. “There was good days, bad days, but that’s business — the ups and the downs.”
It usually takes three to four months to get a business license in Chicago, but Rodriguez got hers in less than a month, thanks to the city’s expedited restaurant licensing program — an initiative she learned of through Mercado del Pueblo.
Even after opening Janellie’s Kitchen this past March, Rodriguez is still getting guidance and support from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and its partners. That’s an important — and sometimes overlooked — step in helping first-time small business owners succeed, said Emmanuel Dávila, the director of business initiatives for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the center director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center.
“It’s not like we’re going to help you get open, give you all of the tools and resources and once you’re open, we forget about you,” Dávila said.
Still, Dávila said the Puerto Rican Cultural Center doesn’t take credit for Rodriguez’s success.
“They started out selling sweets and they didn’t have a menu at the time and over time it developed into this business that can stand on its own,” he said. “I think that really speaks to the resilience of the Puerto Rican community, the resistance and self-reliance.”
For Rodriguez, one word comes to mind when she reflects on her journey: orgullo, which means pride in Spanish.
“I used to hear these artists say, ‘Follow your dreams, follow your dreams,’ but it’s literally what you have to do: Follow it and work for it,” she said.
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