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Disaster to opportunity: How Gainesville turned a Puerto Rican chef’s life around

Ivan Perez laughs and catches up with his regular guests on Feb. 23 at the GNV Market at Heartwood. Perez says the feedback he gets from customers is what motivates him to serve. (Miguel Molina/WUFT News)
Ivan Perez laughs and catches up with his regular guests on Feb. 23 at the GNV Market at Heartwood. Perez says the feedback he gets from customers is what motivates him to serve. (Miguel Molina/WUFT News)

Ivan Perez says the city of Gainesville has given him a second chance at life.

Perez is the chef and owner of Taino Roots Artisan Kitchen. He makes Latin Caribbean-style cuisine and has set up at local markets for a year now.

After the effects of Hurricane Maria, Perez decided to move to Gainesville. However, he said the city has allowed him to chase his lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant.

“I wanted to do my own restaurant in Puerto Rico but that never happens,” Perez said. “Here it's been possible for me.”

Perez is from San Juan, Puerto Rico and had lived there for almost his entire life. After graduating from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico and working as a newspaper manager for 10 years, he said he finally decided to do what he had always wanted to do and that was to cook.

Perez worked in the restaurant business for 20 years back home. As a head chef, he created the menus for places like Raja e’ Leña and CRU Calle Loiza.

However, his entire way of life would change in 2017.

Hurricane Maria was a category four storm that devastated Puerto Rico and continues to be the cause of rebuilding efforts on the island. The hurricane caused over $100 billion in damages, according to the Associated Press.

Perez said he got used to hurricanes, living in Puerto Rico. Maria was the worse one he’d ever seen.

He and his family lost access to water and electricity because of the hurricane. He said he was OK for two weeks without the utilities, but after almost three months without these things, life began to get more difficult. Perez said he lost his job as a head chef because everyone on the island was focused on rebuilding, not eating out.

“You start thinking, how I'm gonna pay this,” Perez said. “I have my own mortgage, my own apartment, my own stuff, you know; So that was one of my main worries.”

In a similar situation was Michael Vazquez, Perez’s brother-in-law.

When the hurricane hit, Vazquez said his daughter was not able to start school again for almost three months and they did not have electricity during that time either.

With a greater future in mind, Vazquez moved with his wife and his two kids to Gainesville in January 2018 to become a respiratory therapist at Select Specialty Hospital.

According to a survey reported by Census.gov, nearly 45,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to Florida in 2018. 33.5% of all Puerto Ricans who relocated to the United States in 2018 moved to Florida.

However, Perez was not part of this bunch because he thought there would be more opportunities to start his own restaurant after many closed due to the hurricane. He said he tried various different business models, but he could never get the restaurant off the ground. But his second chance would soon come.

Perez said Vazquez told him there was an opportunity in Gainesville to start his own restaurant business by doing the local markets and events. Finally getting the opportunity he has been looking for, Perez decided to move to Gainesville and start Taino Roots Artisan Kitchen in February 2022.

“I said, ‘Well if it doesn’t happen in Puerto Rico, let’s try some other place’,” Perez said.

He said his biggest challenge was not knowing how he was going to start the business. He knew about the markets, but he did not know how to get involved with them or how long it would take to get started.

His first question, though, was: What would he sell? He decided to do Latin Caribbean cuisine because he has cooked it his entire life. The chef also said the word Taino is what people call natives from the islands of the Caribbean. Then the “roots” part of Taino Roots represents the food that comes from the ground after being planted.

After getting the food license and insurance, he started selling samples of food at the markets. He said the more people tried the food, the more menu options he would add. Some menu items include fresh cevíche, tacos and quesadíllas.

He said one thing that has really helped him is getting the majority of the ingredients for his food from the other vendors at the market. The fresh ingredients he gets from others really help the quality of his food, which is something he cares deeply about.

Perez said the way he goes from market to market is with his “food truck,” which is his red 2017 Honda HR-V. Because of a tight budget after moving, he said he had his car shipped from Puerto Rico.

However, the chef packs all of his food ingredients, kitchen supplies, and beverages into his car. On top of that, he is able to fit his griddle, stove, tables, propane tank and tent into his vehicle.

Although he knew how to write in English, Perez said he had to learn how to speak the language better to communicate with customers. But the biggest lesson he has learned thus far has been how to work with himself.

“It is the first time I work for me, having no boss and doing everything,” Perez said. “I've been making some mistakes, learning from them and I always ask people for feedback.”

The first place to take on Perez was the GNV Market at Heartwood.

Manager Joshua Sanchez said he looks for in his vendors who work well with others. He said having Perez with them every Thursday is great because he helps spread money to the other vendors through his following.

Colleen Kilpatrick has been a frequent customer of Perez for the past four months. She recommends the shrimp and pork quesadíllas.

“He's a true artisan and that is hard to find, especially in a small town,” Kilpatrick said.

Another regular customer, Bob Lockwood, said he can tell by the way the food tastes that Perez puts love into what he makes.

“It looks like a work of art,” Lockwood said. “I almost hate to eat it, but it’s so good.”

Perez said he enjoys teaching people about his culture and where he is from through his menu.

He works seven days a week, either at the markets serving food or prepping food for the next day. He said it can get tiring at times but having his goal of opening a restaurant is what keeps him going. He said Puerto Rico does not have markets like the ones in Gainesville. Because of that, he knows he must make the most of this opportunity.

“I get the strength to go on, and I try not to think I'm tired,” Perez said. “I just take a good sleep and wake up again.”

Although his goal is a small restaurant location, he said he is also working toward possibly getting an actual food truck and some employees. But he said he is in no rush and is enjoying the process.

What Perez wants is for his customers to enjoy his food and for people who hear his story to know that no matter the situation or what’s happened in the past, hard work and passion make anything possible.

“Once you set something on your mind, you can do it,” Perez said. “And I prove it.”

Miguel is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.