For Isis Arrieta-Dennis, cooking arepas is not just a family tradition, its a budding business.
She grew up in Colombia with her mother, who makes the dishes for her own restaurant, then crafted the dish herself for parties and gatherings in the United States for years as she considered starting her own restaurant.
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Instead Arrieta-Dennis, a recent resident of Middletown, launched The Arepa Place, a business that specializes in the corn-based Colombian dish known as arepas.
“It looks like a tortilla, but it’s thicker than a tortilla,” she said. “We cut it open it like a pita and we fill it with ingredients.”
That includes mozzarella cheese, black beans, fried plantains, and shredded beef or chicken.
“We also make cheese arepas by mixing mozzarella into the corn dough before grilling the patties,” Arrieta-Dennis said. “It’s the Colombian version of a grilled cheese.”
The business was one of the first to join Findlay Market’s newest project, the Findlay Kitchen, as Arepa Place Latin Grill. It will launch a storefront of its own at the market this summer. The enticing enterprise is run by Arrieta-Dennis with help from her husband, Christopher, who is from Middletown. She also is assisted by her mother who travels back and forth from Colombia to help.
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Earlier this month, The Arepa Place competed against four other local food-and-beverage entrepreneurs during the Sam Adams “Brewing the American Dream” program’s Cincinnati stop, which featured a Pitch Room Competition and Speed Coaching event.
Jim Koch, Sam Adams Brewing Company brewer and founder, a Cincinnati native, attended the event and acted as a judge.
The Arepa Place came out on top, earning Arrieta-Dennis a $10,000 business grant and extended speed coaching from the Sam Adams program, which has coached or mentored more than 8,000 small businesses since its inception in 2008.
“It was such a great feeling because it just pushed you to sell your business in a different way,” Arrieta-Dennis said. “In two minutes, how can you sell your business so you can convince them that it’s a good business … and that we have a plan and want to take our business to the next level.”
She said the business received a great deal of positive feedback, a warm welcome to the Sam Adams family and an offer to assist in any way possible, including taxes and marketing.
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The event was hosted in partnership with Accion, the nation’s largest nonprofit small business lending network, which Sam Adams has supported in providing more than 1,600 loans totaling $23.8 million to food and beverage businesses nationwide who have then created or retained more than 6,600 jobs.
In Ohio, Sam Adams BTAD program has supported 14 loans to food and beverage companies for a total of $138,000.
Arrieta-Dennis credits David Riggs, director of Butler County Small Business Development Centers, with helping her launch The Arepa Place.
She started meeting with Riggs from January 2016 until October 2017.
“It was very important because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Arrieta-Dennis said. “He trusted us and he gave us the right tools to start our business. I didn’t know where to sign up for the business, how to get the licenses.
“They helped us to build the foundation for the business.”
The Arepa Place’s cheese arepas are sold at both Jungle Jim’s International Market locations, as well as at the EMC grocery store next to Findlay Market. The business will be serving up its culinary creations June 2 at the 2018 Oxford Wine and Craft Beer Festival.