LAWRENCE — When Ray Gonzalez started cooking up tacos and tostadas out of his food truck, Coco Ray's, he dreamed of ultimately transitioning the venture into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
That dream became a reality on Thursday, far faster than Gonzalez ever thought it would.
Gonzalez and Coco Ray's became the first restaurant to take part in the new Revolving Test Kitchen, the latest project from the Lawrence Partnership, designed to be an “incubator” for local food entrepreneurs to test the viability of their business ventures, according to the partnership.
“It's unimaginable. It's something I pictured, I just didn't know if the opportunities were going to be given with such impressive surroundings,” Gonzalez said. “They gave me a full kitchen; they allowed me to skip a big step in preparing another kitchen. It's the dream.”
Coco Ray's will be serving up food at the test kitchen, located in the Northern Essex Community College building at 420 Common St. in the city's downtown, for the next six to 12 months, said Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership. While there, Gonzalez will be able to test out products, get sales projections and learn the ropes of operating a full restaurant, Mitchell said.
Should his concept prove viable, Gonzalez, a lifelong Lawrence resident, is expected to open up a permanent location in the city's downtown. Someone else will then get the opportunity to try out their recipes at the test kitchen.
Coco Ray's officially launched at the Revolving Test Kitchen on Thursday, with members of the Lawrence Partnership, Northern Essex and elected officials coming together at the pop-up restaurant for a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. Joseph Bevilacqua, president of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, also presented Gonzalez with a certificate in honor of his opening.
Sal Lupoli, president and CEO of Lupoli Companies, spoke of hardships young entrepreneurs can face in launching their businesses.
“This sends a message not only to our community, not only to the Merrimack Valley. This sends a message to the entire state of Massachusetts that when you can create an opportunity like this for young entrepreneurs like Ray Gonzalez to come up with a concept and fulfill his dream, that's pretty great,” Lupoli said.
Testing Coco Ray's
Coco Ray's dishes feature Mexican cuisine with a “big, Puerto Rican touch to it,” Gonzalez said.
There are breakfast and lunch options ranging from burritos to quesadillas to tacquitos. As a self-proclaimed “taco man,” Gonzalez said his favorite dish off the menu is the steak tacos.
The restaurant is also a family affair. Gonzalez's mother is the Coco of restaurant's namesake, and his wife, Diana is also involved. Family and close friends served as cooks and line preps on opening day.
“It just makes us closer. It just keeps us together even more and more. We're all together in this,” he said.
Beyond his family, there were several people and entities that came together with the Lawrence Partnership to help get Gonzalez's pop-up restaurant up and running.
Lupoli, for instance, donated the funds to build out the restaurant space, which includes table and bar seating and flows into the Eastern Bank offices on the building's first floor.
“I spent every dollar you could spend to make the most beautiful space possible because I wanted to send the message that beautiful places can exist in gateway cities,” Lupoli said.
Lupoli's desire to help in this venture wasn't just professional, it was personal.
Similar to Gonzalez, Lupoli opened his first restaurant as a family operation and said he encountered his share of struggles along the way. He spoke of the uniqueness of the Revolving Test Kitchen in that it not only provides the appropriate facilities for a restaurant, but it also provides guidance from those who can understand the struggles of a young entrepreneur in order to better help them thrive.
“It's being on the same level playing field as some of the other big entrepreneurs out there,” Lupoli said of the Common Street facility.
“And then you have the mentorship,” he continued. “I've been in this businesses for 27 years. Teach me what you'll do for marketing, show me how you're going to run this business financially stable, show me profits.”
While Lupoli donated funds and advice, Northern Essex provided the space. Mike McCarthy, vice president of administration finance for the college, said it was inspiring to see the partnerships that helped bring the test kitchen to fruition.
“Having met Ray and his mother on a few different occasions, I know he's going to be successful and I hope he's the first in a line of many that will come through this opportunity and develop successful restaurants in the area.”
In between bites of Coco Ray's food, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera commended Gonzalez for having “hustle.”
“He's telling me all these different marketing techniques. Wendy's might have to shutter up and go away,” he quipped of the fast-food chain nearby.
More seriously, though, he added, “That's the type of thing we need in the city.”
After several months at the Revolving Test Kitchen, Gonzalez will receive financial support through the Lawrence Partnership's Venture Loan Fund to help him secure a permanent location, said Mitchell, of the Partnership.
“As an entrepreneurial food-based business, it's a hard business to bank,” Mitchell said. “We can leverage our loan fund to put him into a permanent place.”
At the test kitchen's opening on Thursday, Gonzalez seemed both awestruck and grateful Thursday as he surveyed the line that at points during the lunch rush stretched out the door.
“Truck life is amazing,” he said in a nod to his food truck. “But the dream was to transition into the restaurant slowly. Thanks to the Lawrence Partnership it just happened one day to the next.”
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakash23.