The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about significantly increased financial stress on small businesses — Sombrero’s Mexican Cuisine and Café, a family-owned business near the Downtown Mall, was no exception. Husband-and-wife team Bernardo and Lucrecia Martinez — who both spent years working in the food service business and always hoped to have a restaurant of their own — opened the Charlottesville location of their restaurant at the start of the pandemic last year.
Sombrero’s initially opened in Stanardsville, Va. in 2016, and Bernardo and Lucrecia signed the lease on the location in Charlottesville in December 2019. Bernardo explained that the family decided to move the restaurant to Charlottesville due to slow business in the very small town of Stanardsville.
“We didn't know anything about Stanardsville until we started working there,” Bernardo said. “[It] is a town with 520 citizens, so it is a very small spot, so after about six or eight months of being there, we knew that we weren't going anywhere.”
In addition to prompting the change of location, slow business in Stanardsville also inspired the family to incorporate a food truck into their business model in addition to the restaurant. To this day, the Sombrero’s food truck remains an integral component of the business — which the two Martinez children, Daniella, age 13, and Daniel, age nine, help operate in addition to the restaurant — and, according to Bernardo, helped the family during periods of financial struggle. They have been able to use the truck at events like weddings and to provide food services to local breweries to earn additional revenue.
“[When] my wife and I talked about the business … We had two options, either close the business or ask for a loan and buy a food truck,” Bernado said. “So we decided to buy the food truck … [in] 2017. And then we started working on the food truck, and that really helped us to keep the doors open.”
At its Charlottesville location, both the restaurant and food truck serve fresh home-style Mexican meals and appetizers. Lucrecia and Daniella prepare their delicious food at the restaurant, while Bernardo cooks and serves meals from their food truck. Among other dishes, the Sombrero’s menu features $10 “build your own” items — including bowls, burritos and quesadillas — as well as family meals, including $36 fajita spreads and a $36 taco bar. Additionally, Sombrero’s also offers a 10 percent discount to students. However, despite their tasty dishes and discounts, the business still struggled to break even as a result of the pandemic.
In September 2020, Bernardo received a phone call from Pelin Halici, third-year McIntire student and Enactus project leader.
Enactus is a McIntire-affiliated CIO that consults for free with small businesses in the Charlottesville area, such as Northshea and Pearl Island, by providing marketing resources and general assistance to meet their clients’ needs. Enactus searched through a list of local minority-owned businesses given by Carolina Medina, operations coordinator for Community Investment Collaborative, an organization that assists local businesses. They then reached out to the Martinez couple, along with other restaurants on the list.
Halici explained that Enactus was looking to help Sombrero’s with their business and connected the Martinez family with several other Enactus members. Sombrero’s was able to begin generating enough revenue to break even over this past winter break, and eventually they began to earn a profit.
Andrew Cabalu, second-year College student and member of the Enactus team that worked with Sombrero’s, explained how Enactus set out to help the struggling business.
“We were able to get Sombrero's on the Elevate meal plan, and ever since we did that they've been seeing a lot more orders from students,” Cabalu said. “It's really helped their business, so really our whole plan going into the past year with the pandemic was to transition their business online.”
Halici spoke about how the team also focused on reworking Sombrero’s social media by holding a photoshoot and making their social media footprint more interactive with giveaways in an effort to increase their follower base.
“Obviously, marketing is one of the biggest things you can do to attract customers so you can follow [Sombrero’s] on Instagram @SombrerosCville,” Halici said. “[The team] also worked to get Sombrero’s on the front cover of C-BIZ magazine to gain exposure to Charlottesville natives. Having that combination of the magazine and improving social media helped bring the locals in.”
To help support business and gain exposure in the Charlottesville community, the Enactus team suggested that Sombrero’s host a one-year anniversary event to serve as a more formal opening since their initial launch coincided with the start of the pandemic and thus prevented them from holding a grand opening.
The event will take place Saturday, March 27 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For the event, the Martinez family will set up the Sombrero’s food truck on the Water Street Lot next to First Street and behind the Jefferson Theatre.
In addition to $1 off every meal ordered, the event will feature music, balloons, stickers and free appetizers including chips and guacamole or queso with each customer’s order. COVID-19 safety guidelines will also be enforced since the event will be held outdoors — customers will be expected to socially distance when ordering food and wear masks.
Bernardo highlighted the importance of the anniversary event for his family and for the Sombrero’s business, especially given that the pandemic prohibited them from holding an official opening event last year.
“Since we couldn't do anything during the pandemic time, we didn't have an inauguration at all, we couldn't cut the ribbon or anything,” Martinez said. “What we want is for people to know and try our food because we are pretty sure that as soon as they try our product, they will come back.”
In the days leading up to this anniversary event, Halici underscored the importance of supporting Sombrero’s during such a difficult time, especially given the business’s history. For Halici, it is not only the quality of the food that makes Sombrero’s special, but also the inspiring story of the family behind it.
“It's just so inspiring that [the Martinez family] gave up everything to move to Charlottesville,” Halici said. “[They started] a restaurant from scratch during the pandemic, and somehow they went from making no money at all, and now they're making a profit just within a year … [it’s] really inspiring.”
Cabalu expressed similar sentiments, emphasizing the unique value that Sombrero’s brings as a family business. According to Cabalu, it is more important now than ever to support small businesses, especially family businesses like Sombrero’s.
“I think also just the story behind the business brings a lot of value,” Cabalu said. “You know, they moved here from Mexico a couple years ago with sights of opening up a restaurant, and it's a real family behind this business. This is their source of livelihood … So I think what makes Sombrero's really special and kind of stand out from other small businesses in Charlottesville is that it's a real family effort.”
Sombrero’s offers take-out and dine-in with limited seating. Their hours are Monday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., Tuesday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for both take-out and dine-in, and they stop taking mobile orders 30 minutes before closing time.
This article previously misnamed Carolina Medina as Caroline Medina and has been updated with the correct name for the Community Investment Collaborative coordinator.