If you visit Torti Taco in downtown Battle Creek on a Friday evening, you will smell delicious barbacoa in the air and see a diverse crowd, colorful signature drinks and a one-of-a-kind oyster bar.
Torti Taco is an award-winning restaurant staple in the Battle Creek, Mich., community. Its authentic Mexican dishes blend farm-to-table ingredients with family recipes tracing back to Mexico and California. What started as a small family restaurant has launched into a great triumph, with Torti Taco recently opening its second storefront location in the heart of downtown Battle Creek.
This success is due to one family’s passion for bringing Mexican culture to Battle Creek and the organizations in the community committed to empowering local entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Before starting his career as the owner and founder of Torti Taco, Javier Fortoso worked alongside his brother doing residential and commercial painting. The job took Javier and his brother across Michigan and even sometimes into bordering states. One day, while Javier and his brother were working in Indiana, they discovered a small taco joint – and they realized Battle Creek didn’t have its own taco restaurant. From that moment, the brothers traded their paintbrushes for spatulas. Javier dove headfirst into launching his business, enlisting the help of his family members to staff and grow the restaurant.
“At that time, my goal was to open a small taco shop with the help of my family,” Javier said. “I never imagined what it would be like to run a business with real employees or how much work it would take. For a while, we could not find a chef, so I took on the role of cooking. I’ve always enjoyed cooking for friends and family.”
Javier had the passion and the drive, but he needed business experience. Eager to learn more to foster his dream, Javier participated in training, seminars and networking events as much as he could between balancing full workdays at Torti Taco. One of these professional development opportunities was a program for small businesses and entrepreneurs that included a pitch competition. Through this event, Javier connected with one of the competition’s judges – who was also a team member at Northern Initiatives.
Northern Initiatives is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) providing loans and business services to small business owners and entrepreneurs in Michigan who might not qualify for loans from traditional banks. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation currently has grants with Northern Initiatives for $2.8 million solely dedicated to supporting Battle Creek small business owners with technical assistance and resources to guarantee traditional financing. Additionally, WKKF assisted with the creation of a $10 million small business loan fund to help open and grow Battle Creek small businesses.
“Northern Initiatives focuses on the loans where family wealth is not an option and that represent loans that banks won’t do, can’t do or shouldn’t do,” said Elissa Sangalli, President. “Typically, the latter is happening because of credit scores or the lack of equity or collateral to meet bank standards. NI’s typical customer is one with strong growth prospects, but often has a limited track record, limited or insufﬁcient collateral, and is cash constrained. What NI measures as compensating factors are character and cash ﬂow.”
Despite this progress, Torti Taco struggled to attract customers in the winter months, so Javier applied for, and was awarded, a $30,000 loan from Northern Initiatives.
Javier used the loan to update equipment, purchase a cash register system, increase inventory and support permanent working capital. He also utilized Northern Initiatives’ business training, worked with a business services director to refresh Torti Taco’s website, and used the online portal Initiate to prepare monthly cash flow projections.
“When we received the loan from Northern Initiatives, we were really struggling, and the funding and services they provided helped us so much,” Javier said. “The process to apply and qualify for the loan was easy to navigate, and their team was always available to help.”
Torti Taco may have needed support from Northern Initiatives in its early years, but it’s now achieved tremendous growth and recognition in the community. The restaurant has earned impressive awards and expanded its staff to include more than 20 full- and part-time staff who call Battle Creek their home. To date, they’ve served thousands of steak and marinated pork tacos — their most famous menu items.
Torti Taco’s achievements and the support from Northern Initiatives and other community economic development partners in Battle Creek prove that when small businesses win, the local economy thrives for all residents. The employees at Torti Taco have access to jobs directly in their neighborhoods that pay well, while residents in the community are more encouraged to spend their income at a local restaurant like Torti Taco.
“Small businesses help build resilient communities,” Sangalli said. “We are giving entrepreneurs the support they need to start and grow their businesses. Those businesses go on to support families, neighborhoods and communities.”