Around the time that the first US COVID-19 cases appeared, Willy Iriarte and Maria Rosa León had just opened their business, Peru Caters. At the beginning of their endeavor, the husband and wife team would travel to corporate offices to serve employees during lunch; however, when COVID began to show up full-force around the city, Maria, who goes by Rosa, and Willy, known as Chef Willy, started to worry. “We had invested a lot of money on pots and pans and all kinds of things,” explained Rosa. “Even though we weren’t in a brick and mortar location, we had still taken a chance [financially].” Fortunately, Peru Caters was given an opportunity to serve first responders lunch during the height of COVID. This lasted from March until the end of June and helped to keep their business running despite the experience of many companies that were forced to close permanently.
An essential component of Peru Caters’ survival during the beginning of the pandemic was Dream Kitchen. Willy and Rosa met with Kevin Echevarria back at the end of 2019 before they officially opened their business. “The reason why we wanted to do a catering service online is because we read and researched about shared kitchens,” Rosa said. “We saw that Dream Kitchen was closest to us, in Elgin, and so went to take a look around the place. I’m a very analytical person, and I needed to see the place to make sure it was clean and up to our standards. I wanted to know that their other clients kept our standards as well since it is a shared kitchen. Thankfully, everything was perfect—Dream Kitchen makes sure that every client keeps certain protocols, especially now during COVID. So we decided to take a chance, and our dream of having a catering service was made possible in the early stages because of this resource.”
Rosa and Chef Willy used Dream Kitchen for a few pop-ups in early 2020 and then used the space to prepare foods for first responders from March through June. But then business began to slow down, and the entrepreneurs were left with a dwindling number of customers. Corporate offices were empty and all events were on pause, making catering more or less obsolete. It was around this time that Rosa and Willy took a tour of Dream Hall, prompted by Kevin’s suggestion. “Kevin told us he had another place in Elgin that he wanted us to see. He explained to us a little bit about Dream Hall and how it could be a better fit for our needs as a small business operating during Covid.”
Rosa was hesitant at first, though she explained that her husband, a more daring individual, was for it from the start. They took a tour, saw the smaller but more practical kitchen space and the stand from where they would sell. “I kept thinking, ‘What if we don’t make it?’ But at the same time I was excited by the opportunity that Dream Hall would give us, and I knew we had to give it a try. Thankfully, my excitement quenched my fear.” Chef Willy and Rosa invested a bit of money, got insurance, and opened their stand. By 6pm on the first day, they sold out, leaving a line of disappointed customers who hoped to try their Pervuvian cuisine. “We hadn’t seen this in a pop-up before; it was proof for me that things were going to be good and that we could invest our time, money, and hearts into this new venture, even at our age.”
Willy and Rosa are a bit older than most new business owners but their hearts reflect a vibrant belief that no one is ever too old to start something new. The couple, who were both born in Peru, spent some of their younger years catering for church fundraisers and social programs in countries like Brazil, Colombia, and, of course, Peru. Sometimes cooking for up to as many as 100 people, Willy and Rosa weren’t strangers to the demand of large-scale food prep. When the duo moved to the US, Willy worked as a chef in Chicago for about a year before deciding to open Peru Caters with his wife. Now in their 60s, Willy and Rosa have pursued a goal at a time when others are thinking of retirement.
“The younger people I see working in Dream Hall are really purposeful,” Rosa explained. “They go forward and reach their dreams and their goals. At the beginning, I saw them and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I guess I felt, at first, like I should have reached my dreams already but I hadn’t. But now I see that you’re never too old to continue to try and reach your dreams.” Dream Hall’s flexible scheduling definitely allows the pair to see their dreams come true in a way where the couple can make a living and stay involved with family both in and out of the kitchen, something that can be difficult in the restaurant business. Often, the pair is joined by their granddaughter, Anna, who has been with them from the start. “She’s helped us with logistics and operations while also attending to our customers daily in person and on the phone as the voice and face of Peru Caters,” explained Rosa. “Recently, Anna has been helping her grandpa in the kitchen, learning the trade first hand. We wouldn’t have made it without her.” The ease of renting a shared kitchen eliminates a lot of expenses and responsibilities that would otherwise burden the couple, leaving time and emotional space for sweet family moments like these.
Additionally, the pair benefits from the quality kitchen equipment Dream HUB offers. “There are really four things that are specifically helpful,” began Rosa. “ Our oven, so we can bake lots of our Peruvian alfajores; the storage space for all of our supplies and ingredients in the fridge room; the deep fryer for our yucca and French fries—because who doesn’t love fries?; and the fridge in the kitchen, which contains an organized space for prepped-food storage, as well as a prepping station itself.”
The prep station, in particular, is extremely helpful as Peru Caters generally has a consistent customer flow. From 11am to 8pm on Monday through Friday, Chef Willy and Rosa are baking and cooking Peruvian classics and twists that have customers driving from literal miles and miles away. With joy in her voice, Rosa recounted one of the most impactful customer experiences: “One of my customers told me, ‘Rosa, I’ve been all over Chicago eating at Peruvian restaurants but this time I tasted my home kitchen, my mom’s food.’ That meant so much to me because what we do here is more than cook, serve, and sell. We put our hearts into it, and we feel such great satisfaction when we see people enjoying their meals and talking to us.” Peru Caters offers a lot of classics like ceviche, ají de gallina, and lomo saltado, a customer favorite. But they also incorporate recipe twists, like creating healthy options for traditional dishes. “We do a vegetable and a chicken “lomo” saltado as well as the original beef,” described Rosa.
When asked how she would encourage entrepreneurs-in-the-making, Rosa responded with this: “You really never are too old to run after your dreams. Dream Hall helped us reach our goals, and I highly recommend them. The people who work here are the best entrepreneurs that I have ever found. They are helpful and make it easy for you to reach your goals. At the same time, they have their own requirements, and the standards are high. They really are professionals.”