When her boss called her back, she reluctantly resumed the exhausting grind. Her boyfriend looked at her face one day when she came home and said, “Honey, it’s time to do something else.”
Fraszczyk loved to cook, but wanted to do it on her own terms, and make the food she had eaten growing up. A Google search led her to a shared kitchen space in Arlington, where she met Liga Brige, who manages Escala, a program that helps low-income people interested in launching their own businesses (its name means “climb” in Spanish).
The 20-year-old program, which is run by the nonprofit Northern Virginia Family Service, has helped entrepreneurs across a range of industries. But since the pandemic it has focused on those starting food-related businesses, offering one-on-one consulting and group workshops in English and Spanish. In the past year, it has helped 70 entrepreneurs develop business plans, learn how to look for financing, and get their heads around things like state regulations, permitting and marketing.
Fraszczyk took a six-week course with Brige on how to open a business. “She helped me to get all the certification in the kitchen, approval from the health department, my manager license,” she said. Brige also convinced her to start an Instagram account.
In October, Fraszczyk opened her business, Chef Ewa. Now she gets up five days a week and heads to La Cocina VA, the shared kitchen where she met Brige. She makes 450 pierogies by hand each day, serving the savory meat- or vegetable-filled dumplings at La Cocina VA’s cafe on Thursdays and at farmers markets and private catering jobs on other days. But it doesn’t feel like a slog. “Yes, I do make pierogies every day, and I love it and they come from my heart,” she said.
Escala’s clients range from people who want to bake cookies, cakes or granola out of their home (which requires less regulation) to those who need to work out of a commercial kitchen, to those who want to launch a catering business, a takeout operation, a food truck or a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
The program is funded by grants from Fairfax and Arlington counties, where more than half its clients live, while the rest live in D.C. and Maryland. Some were already professional cooks who wanted to strike out on their own. For others, food was a new and unfamiliar realm.
“Covid exposed a lot of vulnerability in our community,” said Brige, who is the program’s small-business counselor. “People lost jobs. Not all clients have great credit history and some don’t even have a credit history.”
Roberto Tapia, 44, did not work in the food industry before the pandemic. But the coronavirus halted most business at Roda Movements, his Takoma Park fitness studio specializing in Latin American exercise traditions.
“It was probably one of the hardest times in my life,” said the native of Mexico who was born to Chilean parents and now lives in Silver Spring. Customers melted away. “In one day we went from 250 people to zero. We were closed for a year.”
After trying to hold classes on Zoom or outdoors, Tapia turned to another idea, one he had toyed with since he moved to the United States in 2005 and noticed something missing. “Every restaurant I went to, I was surprised that they don’t have any fresh juice like in our countries.”
So he started Roda Juice, a line of cold-pressed raw juices based on Latin American flavors. He traveled to Mexico to do research, and entered and won a business plan contest held by Escala. “That helped me to get more confidence in myself,” he said.
With the help of Escala, Tapia got an operation permit, and he now makes juices out of a commercial kitchen in Takoma Park that rents space by the hour. Flavors include the Cartagena — pineapple, orange, carrot, turmeric and jicama — and the Mendoza — apple, celery, lemon and spinach.
Brige encourages clients to grow their businesses slowly. Fraszczyk has hired one employee to help handle business on farmers market days. Tapia produces fewer than 100 bottles of juice a week and sells them in his fitness center, which has reopened, as well as online. He also puts bottles in his daughters’ school lunches, attracting interest from teachers who have became fans.
“I feel so proud of myself that I’m legally able to produce juice,” he said, adding that he is always experimenting with recipes. “I feel like this crazy scientist who’s doing great stuff in the laboratory.”
Over half of Escala’s clients are immigrants, including a Serbian who makes custom-designed cakes and a Salvadoran who makes cookies. Some are still in the planning stages, while others have launched in recent weeks or months.
David Levy, 61, makes arepas from his native Colombia, along with pita pizzas, a nod to the Lebanese father he learned about later in life. After working for many years in construction, he had recently moved his family from Florida to Falls Church and was earning money as an Uber driver when the pandemic hit, decimating his income. Then he got a letter from Fairfax County about a business administration course available for people 55 and older.
Levy met Brige through Britepaths, a nonprofit that counsels people in personal finance management and has a partnership with Escala. He had an idea to refashion a large storage trailer he had bought for construction into a food venue, and she helped him with permits and licensing and connected him to a commercial kitchen. An avid baker and cook, Levy opened Pizza Pita 24, a food trailer parked across from a row of car dealerships off Chain Bridge Road in Tysons. His wife, Gloria, 51, and Nathalia, 20, the oldest of their three children, work with him.
“Escala has helped my dad, not only knowledge-wise, but also support,” Nathalia said. “They offer a lot of encouragement.”
Along with the pillowy rounds of cornmeal, the family also sells Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers, Colombian coffee and avena, a milky drink.
Employees from the car dealerships walk over, and other customers pull up in their cars. A few have invited the family to serve food at private events.
“We’ve had people come and say, ‘Oh, my god, you have arepas? I have to go all the way to New Jersey to get them!’ ” Nathalia said.
At La Cocina on Thursday, Fraszczyk came out onto the sidewalk cafe carrying a plate of steaming golabki, or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and pork, the other item on her menu besides pierogies. She set them down in front of Andreas Stargard, a fan of her food who had brought two friends from D.C. to try it out.
Tamara Declama, a real estate agent, devoured it and then dug into a plate of pierogies. “I’m not a Polish food fan to begin with, but I’m now becoming a fan of Ewa,” she said. “I always thought it didn’t have any flavor, but this has the perfect amount.”
After the lunch rush, Fraszczyk sat down at an outdoor table. She waved and chatted with a woman walking up the street — a regular customer — and reflected on her new life.
“I’m balanced, I’m balancing myself,” she said. “I am doing this for myself, just to be happy.”
She clasped her hands together and smiled. “You know, no one believes in the American Dream anymore,” she said. “To me, this is what I’m achieving. This is my little American Dream.”