Kitchen Lessons

09/01/2022 03:17 AM By Lisa Anderson
The Chews Letter
Angel Cortes
Angel Cortes with fianceé, Jontel Hammond
Story by Jodi Anderson • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Kitchen Lessons

Young Restaurateur Learns from His Mistakes

Twenty-five-year-old La Cocina owner Angel Cortes came to Ocala with his father to start a food business just seven years ago. They started with nothing, working odd jobs to collect money to rent their first trailer. “I really learned to grow through this business,” he says. “There were times I didn’t know how to communicate, how to articulate my vision well. I’ve made employees cry. It took a lot for me to listen to my mistakes.”

Angel grew up in his dad’s various food ventures—a grocery store, a Spanish kitchen. He was the kid stocking shelves, cutting meat, and dicing fruit, instead of playing video games. The family moved around Florida until they settled in New Port Richey, when Angel was 8. He recalls being at the grocery store when the landlord came to collect the rent. “I wanted to be that guy. I want to come collecting. I always had that inspiration, like I don’t want to work for anyone.”

Losing the Silver Spoon

The youngest of five kids (“I was a surprise!”), Angel remembers looking up to his oldest brother, who was successful on the street. His father was always working and wasn’t around much. Angel started getting into trouble, stealing, “selling things I shouldn’t sell.” He was just a kid with a “silver spoon,” with everything handed to him, except what he wanted most: attention.

And then financial tragedy befell his family. When they arrived in Ocala, he and his father set up their first food truck in “Little Mexico.” It was not a good neighborhood, and Angel was presented with opportunities that could have taken him in a different direction. But he had a belief in the future. “I knew it wasn’t going to be like that forever,” he says of his dire financial situation. And he saw that the people who offered him those opportunities are not where he is today. “I’ve always seen my worth.”

Angel and his dad had different philosophies, and they soon parted ways. “When I was with my dad, I felt like I was wearing a size shoe that wasn’t mine.” With his high school sweetheart—now fiancée—Jontel Hammond at his side, he continued to run the truck until a new opportunity to open a restaurant in a gas station presented itself. He continued to grow his business with the help of his dad, but he admits that they made some expensive mistakes in their expansion. They now work at separate locations.

The Past Inspires the Future

La Cocina is located in the Shell gas station off of Airport Road. Angel takes some inspiration from his Hispanic roots (his father immigrated from Mexico), such as burritos and tortas. His biggest seller is the birria taco: barbacoa (shredded beef), cheese, onion, and cilantro on a tortilla. But he has an extensive menu that includes fried chicken, ribs, Italian sausages, burgers, and Philly cheesesteaks. “I sell a lot of things,” he says, with a gleam in his eye, and then deadpans, “but actually, I’m pescatarian. I only eat fish.” He claims his favorite menu item is the birria taco with fried fish.

His experiences with his dad were not all bad. “My dad really helped me with cooking, working with customers, being innovative when things break.” But he learned the nuts and bolts of running a business from books. And he got an accountant. “That’s something that’s helped me a lot.”

He also learned to plan for the future. Angel’s favorite book is Napoleon Hill’s Outwitting the Devil, crediting it with helping him to manage his stress. He also admires Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad Poor Dad. And he continues to learn. “I’ve still got a lot of developing to get to where I want to go.”

Angel foresees starting a chain of restaurants. “At this point, [I’m] looking for people that see the vision like I see it. I see a lot of potential in what I’ve got going on.” He doesn’t want just employees; he wants a team. “I want people who see the vision and want to add on to it. We can take it to a bigger level, having the right minds together.”

This ambitious young man looks to the past as well as the future in building the brand of La Cocina. “I wanted to incorporate who I was and who I’ve become.” In doing so, Angel has already had people in his neighborhood come to him and thank him for inspiring them to start their own small business, like car washing and lawn mowing. He’s humble about his impact, but it’s obvious it means a lot to him. “It’s important to me to show that there’s another way than being in the streets.”
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