When Erwin Ovalle came to the States from his home in Guatemala, he spoke very little English and took a chance for his dream of having his own cafe.
Erwin grew up in the city of Xela and was the youngest of his three sisters and two brothers. There was quite a gap between him and his brothers, so he knew that he most likely was not planned, but that didn’t stop him from feeling a part of everything.
His father Hugo worked the land, growing coffee and cocoa while his mother Maria ran a bakery shop that was in the front of their home. “I remember every morning, waking up with the smell of bread. I always helped my mom to bake breads,” Erwin says.
“I liked helping my dad on the properties. It was so peaceful. There were a lot of different trees and different kinds of fruits. Dad always encouraged us to work and earn our money,” he asserts.
Working hard in the fields and learning to cook in the bakery had ignited a passion that would hold his dream.
Spanish is Erwin’s first language and while attending Universidad Panamericana - American University (UPANA) in Guatemala City, he decided to take French as a second language instead of English.
“I picked French because English was so complicated for me. I always have trouble with English. French was easy for me and I won a scholarship,” Erwin says.
He studied tourism and hotel management, thinking he would like to have a travel agency. As he worked his internship in rather large hotels with upscale restaurants, Erwin learned a lot more about the restaurant business and about making customers happy.
The first time Erwin came to the States, he was visiting his brother Dony who was living in California.
“California was easy. There were Spanish people everywhere you went. Chattanooga was very different. I took a couple of English courses for a couple of months and, when my brother moved to Chattanooga to start a new business, he had asked me to come with him and help him,” Erwin says.
“The first day I arrived, he took me to work and I only knew a little bit of English. I was trying to help him, but it was such a different culture - I didn’t think it was for me,” Erwin admits.
Working with his brother in his maintenance company, Erwin felt like a fish out of water, but he stuck it out.
“I didn’t know anybody here and it took a year and a half for me to love Chattanooga like my home,” he says.
In 2002, Dony decided to move back to California and Erwin took over the business. MCS Inc. (Management Cleaning Services), which now employs about 16 people, has several contracts with businesses downtown, such as Luken Holdings.
Running a successful business wasn’t enough for Erwin. He still had the desire to open his own café. Teaming up with a good friend who studied at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York, Erwin went for his dream last fall and opened Ovalle’s Mexican Café on South Broad Street.
“I knew it would be hard because I didn’t have experience in owning a restaurant. The main reason I decided to try is because my friend had restaurant experience. He was the chef,” Erwin states.
After just a few months of being open, his chef friend left and Erwin knew that the odds were stacked against him. He was told that no restaurant had made it in that location. He was also told that the first six months are the hardest in running a business and he had barely gotten through the first three.
After losing his chef, Erwin also seemed to have lost his confidence. He let the fear of going it alone nearly influence him to quit. But as his faith kept him strong and so did his dream.
“There are no words to explain what I have been through. When you have a dream it is your dream. It belongs to you and nobody else. You can’t expect people to have the same drive you do. My friend moved on, and I am always appreciative of his help, but I felt like I was stuck in the middle before I was ready,” Erwin confesses.
“I am a Christian and I learned when things happen to you, it’s for the good …and I couldn’t see that before. I wasn’t a chef - how could I take over the kitchen? I learned that I have more passion to do it. It takes passion to do it, it takes time and hard work,” Erwin says.
Realizing that he invested a lot of time, money and effort, Erwin got his second wind and his confidence was restored once again.
“I took over the kitchen and I have learned so much in different areas that I had not learned before. I come up with new dishes and have really enjoyed it,” Erwin says.
"Mole is very Mexican. It is pan-seared chicken breast, prune, sesame seeds, cilantro, rice and summer vegetables. We make it a little different here. I remember trying it in Chicago at Rick Bayless’ restaurant. It was delicious and inspired me,” Erwin says.
The dish requested the most are the fish tacos and is the number one seller right now. “I have people come in who work at Big River and their tacos are supposed to be really good and their waitresses will come here and get them,” Erwin says amazed.
“When I first opened, my friend and I came up with starters. We both came up with soups, but I suggested we also have guacamole made fresh at the table. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea, but I wanted to do something different. There aren’t too many places in town where you can eat good guacamole. I am glad I make it – we sell a lot of guac every day,” he says.
Erwin’s face lights up when he talks of the blessings as people encouraged him and supported him. As he survived the dreaded six-month mark, Ovalle’s has been given many rave review, the first being from Chattanoogan.com.
“One of your writers came and wrote about us. It was such a blessing and then it was like a circle …WRCB came because of that and a lot of people have become involved and wanted to help,” he insists.
Ovalle’s was featured on TV several times and was invited to do a cooking session with WDEF Channel 12 for about three months.
“I think it is a favor from God to send the right people at the right time. Words can’t explain my appreciation for those people,” Erwin says.
He learned that hard work ethics that he learned from his father and the cooking skills he learned from his mother, along with his passion and drive, were enough to keep him going as loyal customers kept coming back.
“I was used to working hard - and it takes time to make it work. It took time when I started MCS to build a relationship with people and I knew it would take time here. My income was coming from MCS, but my passion was here. I still have my other company, but this is where my heart is,” Erwin says. “I feel like I am getting more of a relationship with customers now. I like interacting with them and they continue to come and bring more people.”
Having the gift of hospitality, Erwin has a desire to give to people and to serve. Ovalle’s takes a day in November to give back to the community by donating all proceeds from restaurant sales that day to local organizations in order to make a difference in Chattanooga.
Erwin learned generosity and giving from his mother as he watched her always caring for others who entered their home.
His parents try to visit every six months and they ship cocoa beans and coffee beans every two weeks from their home in Guatemala. Since the restaurant first began, Erwin created delicious desserts such as the Chocolate Torte made from the family’s cocoa beans.
“I love what I’m doing and I have a passion for it. It isn’t about making money as much as it is doing what I am passionate about. As long as this place pays everybody’s checks, I am happy,” Erwin smiles.
“It takes time to build a name, but I don’t have the pressure that I used to have before,” Erwin says.
“There is a huge difference where I was and where I am now and I could not ask for more.”