Wednesday, August 22, 2012

[EID Feature] Maria's Comida Comes Full Circle

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Last Saturday was the final day of operation for Maria’s Comida in Hamtramck. The eclectic (for lack of a better word) restaurant served what they called “Mexican-Asian fusion” cuisine, which included items like Asian Barbecue Chicken skillet pizza, Singapore Street Noodle wraps with cilantro rice and tortilla strips, Asian Baby Back Ribs, traditional tamales, made-to-order guacamole, and their infamous Smoked Ghost Pepper Burger topped with bacon and their house-made ghost pepper salsa. The menu was all over the map (so to speak), but as Hamtramck is metro Detroit’s finest melting pot where the only thing that would be weird to see would be a straightforward ‘Murican restaurant without any kind of ethnic flare, Maria’s fit right in.

Maria’s Comida is owned by the Pronko family. Father Alan is the chef and daughter Marie is the manager; mom Angela and son Fred are also heavily involved. Alan went to culinary school some 20 years ago, and helped open the first incarnation of the acclaimed Jack’s on the Riverfront in St. Clair Shores and P.F. Chang’s in Troy’s Somerset Collection. Marie actually came from a social work background but had experience in catering and private parties with her father and had always enjoyed it. Her brother had been long-haul truck driving for a food delivery company and was also looking for a career change, so when the opportunity came to open the restaurant the family took it.

Maria’s originally started out as a Mexican restaurant four and a half years ago, really for no other reason than because that’s what it was before and because, as Marie notes, it’s just good food. Then about two years ago they switched the menu over to the more Mexican-Asian fusion concept that they really became best known for. “We used to do Asian Wednesdays and those became our most popular nights,” Marie explains. “So [we decided to] mix it up a bit.”

The family is a mix of ethnicities but none of them happen to be Mexican or Asian. Does this then mean that they have no native claim over the cuisines and therefore should not even attempt them? No. Because that’s dumb. “My dad says you don’t have to be of that background to cook that food,” Marie states. “We don’t claim to be ‘authentic.’ We just like to take food and put a different flare to it.”

The place has stayed open for these past few years by sheer force of will. The day after Maria’s Comida opened in February 2008, the UAW went on strike at the American Axel plant in Hamtramck and shortly after the plant closed down. “I heard it used to be really busy when Axel was open!” Marie jokes. But they weathered the storm. Opening any small business and staying open is a hard thing to do, but surviving during Detroit’s dark days of 2008/2009 was practically impossible. Marie admits that they went through some difficult days; the entire family has been working open to close nonstop for the better part of five years to make it happen.

In short, they need a break.

Even though they’ve closed the doors to the restaurant itself, Maria’s will remain open as a production facility for their Maria’s House Made Salsa label. They’ve been producing their own salsas since they opened the restaurant and now have five unique flavors plus an “Asian-inspired” BBQ sauce, plus they’ll be increasing their bottled product line to include more items down the road (like their chopped salad dressing and enchilada sauce). Their products have officially been on the market for two years now and can be found on the shelves of roughly 20 local and regional stores including Holiday Market, Vince and Joe’s, Honey Bee Market and the Michigan Artisans Gallery in Eastern Market. They’re also in talks with Meijer, Kroger and Whole Foods, and Midtown’s Ye Olde Butcher Shop already has the products for when they open.

“For us when we first started the salsa is something we always wanted to do; it’s something we’ve been planning for a number of years,” Marie explains. “It’s a transition we’ve always been working towards. It’s challenging to do both businesses. We want to do a lot with both but with four people we can’t do 100% of both.”

On the restaurant side, Marie knows that to have a successful restaurant you need to have a liquor license and a good location. The former they definitely did not have, and I’ll take it upon myself to say they also lacked the latter. “We knew we’re not going to grow outside of this location. It’s been us busting our asses is how we’ve made it [this far].”

On the product distribution end, they develop all of the recipes and make each batch of salsa and sauce in their own kitchen by hand during the hours the restaurant isn’t open. They also hand-ladle the sauces into each jar (though not for much longer, which is a relief for them) and hand-label each jar before it gets sent to stores. It took them two years to get the product on the market because of the time it took to research bottles, labels, obtain dual licensure as a restaurant and manufacturing facility, and so on. In other words, selling salsa is a lot harder than it looks.

With their products as their main focus, Marie and her family are also entertaining some other ideas of how to utilize the dining room space. Right now they’re talking about offering cooking classes, maybe having monthly supper clubs or hosting pop-ups, and they are still available for catering orders (20 person minimum) and will also have retail hours starting in September when people can come in and buy their products. They will also serve as a community kitchen, already providing space for the production of Street Eatzz’ brand-new 313 Pepper Sauce and Belledine’s BBQ Sauce. “We’re hoping to have other people do that,” she says. “We want to develop this nice hub where we can develop ideas together and kick ideas off of each other. It’s really cool to have that energy bouncing around.”

Marie says that Alan is also really good at consulting and leading other small business owners in the right direction, and they’d like to do more of that. After their own long drawn-out experience going through all of their licensing and even learning as they go along (like the importance of labels, which they just totally re-vamped to give their products more personality and also indicate things like “Michigan made,” “vegan,” and “gluten-free”), they’ve got a lot they can share with others starting out, or those just idly considering it. She mentions putting together a manual of all the need-to-knows and also hosting monthly or quarterly classes just to give people an idea of what they’re really getting into: “’Now that you have the product, now what? This is what you need to know, here’s what you can expect, here’s what’s involved, here’s what stores are looking for.’ I think if people have the proper information they can make the decision for themselves … I feel like [that lack of information] is what holds people back.”

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