Socrates is a 39-year-old Dominican American man, born and raised in the Egleston area of Jamaica Plain. He is the owener of Chilacates, a Mexican Taqueria that started on Amory St in Egleston Square.
He usually wears dark clothing, glasses, and a clean cut beard. When I first met him, a few years ago, he was welcoming and interested to get to know me and my friends as he enjoys becoming friendly with his customers and other strangers. He has an upbeat and easygoing personality that makes him able to connect with his customers. It’s clear that his work ethic and moral compass are key to what has made him successful.
On Cinco de Mayo, during one of our meetings, I watched him interact with customers. He seemed to know and recognize every third person that walked into the store. He is gracious and goes table to table talking to people, networking, making sure that they enjoy their food. He had a long conversation with a woman about the food and running the restaurant. At one point, Socrates went and got more tortillas to give to a man eating a taco salad, free of charge.
Aside from great customer service, Socrates prides himself on the quality of his food. He doesn’t have a supplier drop off food, he has an employee go and shop every day for local produce so he can pick out exactly which ingredients he wants to use. The restaurant makes everything from scratch in the kitchen at the Amory location. This even includes all of the hot sauces, the marinades for the meats, and the guacamole. The only exception is the tortillas, but he has recently bought a tortilla maker so that might change.
One of the difficulties of owning a small business is the pricing of the food. People will often complain about prices and compare it to other places like Chipotle. Socrates explains that the difference is that they can buy in bulk, and that likely nothing that they serve is made by hand on site. This makes it much cheaper. A common complaint has to do with guacamole being $1.50 extra, but this is directly related to the cost of avocados, and how when he first started working, a crate of 48 avocados was just $20. Now, the cost has gone up to almost $70 per crate. He wants to raise the prices of guacamole from $1.50 to $2. When scaled up to an entire year, this could mean an extra 30 thousand dollars a year, which could be an entire year’s salary. He struggles with this decision however because he knows that people will be mad, even if it is just a small change.
As a resident of Egleston, Socrates also has insight on how much the neighborhood has changed over the years, and how a mostly Latino neighborhood has become fairly gentrified. As a small business owner, this gentrification helped him to open and expand his restaurant, just as it has brought in places like Whole Foods and higher end eateries.
Growing up just a block away from his Amory Street location, he has lived there his whole life. He attended English High for High School and started his first business, a pizza shop, at the age of 18. He then attended a carpentry program at the Job Corp in Maine, before coming back to Jamaica Plain.
The house that he lives in now, with his family, is just two doors down from the house that he was born in. Family is a really important part of his life, and in the house that he was born in lives his father as well as many of his staff members. Even though they mostly are not his family by blood, Chilacates is a family business. He started out with a few members of a family, and slowly, over time, that family brought in more and more “family members.”
His devotion to his staff is clear. On the first morning that I met him, he showed up late because he was taking a nap after being woken up in the middle of the night by a staff member that needed a ride to the hospital after his spouse had a medical emergency.
For his business, he tries to keep everything local to support his community. During our first meeting we drove to Urban Edge to talk to a friend of his who is a local artist. He was there to work on the designs for potential merchandise such as tote bags or shirts. He never wants to hire some random person or company to do business with. He likes to have a hands on approach and be involved in the process, otherwise, it isn’t worth it.
From my time with him, Socrates seems like he never stops working. For over 15 years he has worked for American Airlines and that did not stop when he opened his restaurants. He still works a few shifts doing tasks such as baggage handling and customer service. He gets dozens of calls a day from employees, family, friends, and coworkers at the airports who are trying to switch around shifts. Managing everything that he does, take serious stamina and dedication.
Socrates also has many philosophies that he lives by. The first one is: Don't carry too much because then you drop everything. This relates to a conversation that we had about possible expansions and the Wake up the Earth festival. When I asked if he planned to have a stand at the festival, he explained that it would be much too complicated to have all of the food there and keep the quality the same. He doesn’t want to put himself into situations that would make him fail, and the festival would have been a gamble. He explains that this is why he doesn’t want to deliver or cater too much, because he is stretching himself too thin. Another philosophy is: One bird in the hand is better than two in the air. This refers to how he should hold on to the things he has, rather than continually looking for more and more.
The money aspect of the business takes the fun out of it for him. Before a meeting with his wife and coworker about the week’s profits, he tells me that he hates this sort of thing because it is all about the win/lose mentality. After the meeting, he shows me a news article that ranked the top 50 burrito restaurants in the country, and he got 48th place. He was really happy about this and seems to be more excited about success than money.
Socrates has been very successful, and within two years of opening his first location, he has already opened another location on Centre Street, which is one of the busiest areas in Jamaica Plain. He is hesitant with expansion as he likes staying and working in his neighborhood and not going other places in search of money. Despite this, he has discussed potential plans for expansion into other areas in and surrounding Boston.