Jorge Fierro accomplishes the American Dream with restaurant, Rico brand

Story and photos by CALLI PETERSON

“The fact that as an outsider coming to this country not speaking any English and not knowing anybody,” said Jorge Fierro, owner of Rico brand and Frida Bistro, “I have been able, with a lot of hard work and a lot of help from my employees and friends, to accomplish the American Dream.”

jorge

Fierro stands next to one of the paintings in Frida Bistro.

Fierro proved that dreams can truly become reality with deep passion and a lot of hard work. After growing up in Mexico, Fierro decided to leave his home and head to the U.S. hoping to learn English and make a name for himself.

“When I came to Utah in 1985, I didn’t know anybody,” Fierro said.

He said he did not have a place to live, so he ended up staying at a shelter for about a month.

Though his choice of living proved limited, he did not let that stop him from pushing to learn English and searching for a place to work.

“I went to a Catholic church, and they needed a volunteer to wash dishes,” Fierro said. “So, I said ‘Me! Me! I’m a dishwasher!'”

Fierro’s time at the men’s shelter gave him opportunities to see life in a new light. As he became more and more successful, Fierro searched for ways to give back to those around him.

“I was never hungry, so I promised to pay it forward,” he said, raising his sleeve and showing the words, “Pay It Forward,” tattooed on his arm.

And “Pay It Foward,” Fierro does.

In the early 1980s, he gained the friendship of a local couple, Larry and Gail Gerlach. Gail, who was teaching at Shriners Hospitals for Children, hoped to bring some authentic Mexican food to children from Mexico who were undergoing surgeries.

She called Fierro, knowing he would help her accomplish this dream.

“He came up one day and brought food for these kids, and they just exploded with joy,” Larry said in a phone interview. “Gail wrote him a check, and he said, ‘No. No, no, no. Señora, it’s on me, for my people.'”

By this action, Fierro supplied the children with something to look forward to and gained a permanent part in the hearts of the Gerlachs.

“He’s a special friend,” Larry said. “What he did for my wife at that hospital, I think, as much as anything, speaks of his character.”

Fierro actively works with the community by holding fundraisers for nonprofit organizations and initiating the Burrito Project.

The Burrito Project helps to feed the homeless with burritos and bottles of water in Salt Lake City. A large percentage of the homeless, Fierro found, are veterans. This discovery became a significant reason why he works so hard to feed them.

Fierro assembles a group of volunteers who come together to make bean and rice burritos. After the burritos are made, the volunteers hop on bicycles and ride around the city giving burritos to those in need.

This humanitarian effort attracted many volunteers, including University of Utah football players.

“Being able to feed the homeless is one thing, but actually seeing the ins and outs and seeing how these people in the shelter live, it’s very eye-opening,” said Matt Martinez, a former U football player and Burrito Project volunteer. “It’s very humbling to have them say ‘thank you.'”

In a phone interview, Martinez said he has become friends with Fierro and hopes to bring more publicity to this project.

Fierro’s philanthropy has been possible, in part, because one day he had an epiphany about the poor quality of Mexican food in America.

“One day I went to a supermarket, and I bought some flour tortillas and kinds of refined beans and some cheese,” Fierro said. “When I opened them, I was really disgusted with the beans. I thought, ‘What is this?’”

Fierro never dreamed of running his own food business, but after recognizing the lack of quality ingredients in Utah, he realized he needed to do something.

“I was thinking ‘What can I do?'” Fierro said.

He grew up with his mother running a small business. Fierro’s mother would make cooked beans, package them and sell them to markets in Mexico. Having watched her, Fierro had the thought that maybe he could do that too.

Not thinking once more about it, Fierro asked his mother for her cooked bean and creamy salsa recipes and started selling beans downtown at the farmer’s market.

Frida

Frida Bistro is designed with many bright colors and dim lighting. Even the waiting area is decorated to match the design.

Sales started to increase little by little and soon Fierro was approached by someone who represented a small line of farmer’s markets. They asked him if he would be interested in putting a label on his products and selling them.

Fierro jumped at this opportunity and thus was born the Rico brand.

Sales took off, so Fierro started searching for a larger place to prepare and distribute his products. As he was searching, he came across a large warehouse located on 545 W. 700 South.

He turned the warehouse into a place where he and his employees could make the food for the Rico brand.

Then, another opportunity presented itself.

“The front of [the warehouse] used to be my employees’ break room and my office,” Fierro said. “People would drive by and see my employees eating. They would come in and open the door and go ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought it was a restaurant.’ So, OK, let’s start a restaurant.”

And so, Fierro converted the warehouse into a restaurant.

He chose the name Frida Bistro to honor the celebrated artist, Frida Kahlo. “Like Frida Kahlo’s passion for art, Frida Bistro represents Jorge’s passion for food,” according to ricobrand.com.

Bistro

Pictured is one of Fierro’s favorite spots in his restaurant.

Frida Kahlo became the overall theme of the restaurant as paintings of her embellish the walls. Bright colors and dim lighting also contribute to the decorative design of the restaurant which Fierro designed himself.

To add to the authentic feel of the restaurant, Fierro changes the menu every four months or so.

“I took the time to go to Mexico and learn about our gastronomy,” Fierro said. “We created our menu around that.”

In 2011, Frida Bistro was recognized as the best Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City, according to the Salt Lake Magazine Dining Awards 2011.

Now, Fierro is the proud owner of Rico brand and Frida Bistro and also serves on the board of directors for Local First Utah. He actively works with the community by holding fundraisers for nonprofit organizations and initiating the Burrito Project, which helps to feed the homeless.

He adamantly believes in searching for a passion and is glad he found his calling.

“The most important thing: I love what I do for a living,” Fierro said. “I love what I do for a living.”

Navajo Hogan serves traditional foods

by JESSICA DUNN

Squanto, of the Wampanoag tribe, helped the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony 387 years ago. He lived with them and taught them how to fish and plant corn and other local vegetables.

The American Indians originally cultivated about 60 percent of the foods we eat today, said Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. Those foods include corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolates and coffee beans.

While mainstream America has taken these native foods and created new recipes with them, the Navajo Hogan, a Salt Lake City restaurant, keeps Native American food traditions alive with their fry bread and Navajo taco.

The concrete building at 447 E 3300 South looks plain at first glance, with only a big yellow and red sign adorning its gray walls. The inside has a few simple, metal tables and chairs and a long counter in front of the open kitchen. The walls are decorated with Native American murals, strings of dried chili peppers, tribal maps, painted animal hides and various weaponry and trinkets.

Bill and Marcie Espinoza, originally from New Mexico, opened the Navajo Hogan in 1989. The building first housed the Espinozas’ arcade for the teenagers attending nearby Granite High School. One night, though, as Marcie was making dinner, Bill had the idea to sell the traditional Navajo taco that his wife made. He wanted everyone to have to opportunity to enjoy it. She refused at first because she had a full-time job, but after some persuasion from Bill she was convinced.

The restaurant’s main menu item is the Navajo taco. The traditional is the most popular, made with fresh fry bread topped with homemade chili beans, cheddar cheese, chopped lettuce, tomatoes and onions. The Navajo Hogan offers about 10 other variations as well, including vegetarian, chili cheese, blue corn and chicken.

Most North American tribes were never taught how to make bread but they experimented and learned to prepare fry bread, Cuch said in an e-mail. After surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry, Native Americans were issued rations of “salted pork or bacon, refined flour, salt, sugar, and lard,” Cuch said. They had to use the white settlers’ food to create the bread.

“The Indians mixed the flour with water and salt and made a dough,” Cuch said. “With the grease from the bacon or lard, they place the dough in the grease and created grease/fry bread.”

The Navajo Hogan also makes a sweet fry bread with cinnamon and sugar.
Mutton stew is also a staple of the Navajo tradition, Cuch said. The Navajo Hogan makes a limited amount of mutton stew with vegetables every Saturday and is served on a first come first serve basis.

Regulars come in every Saturday for the stew. Some will even call in advance to reserve their bowl, Bill said.

Mutton stew comes from the Navajo tradition of herding sheep. Their eating habits are different from other tribes, even within Utah. The Utes, the Native American tribe that Utah is named for, don’t have any well-known food traditions, Cuch said.

The food diversity stems from the Utes’ nomadic background as opposed to the Navajo’s early settling. Mormon pioneers eventually forced the Utes to change their ways. The move to a reservation restricted their eating habits and food sources.

“[The Utes used to] eat more wild game, including deer, elk, buffalo, antelope [and] trout,” Cuch said. “They learned to plant and eat corn from the Hopi.”

Though the Utes’ eating habits have changed from their traditional ways, Utahns still have the opportunity to try the Navajo taco and mutton stew at the Navajo Hogan.

Bill smiles and greets a pair of his regular customers and writes down their order from memory. He cooks their Navajo tacos according to each of their specifications, even cutting one into quarters.

People from all around the world have come to eat at the Navajo Hogan, especially during the 2002 Winter Olympics. There have been customers from New York, Alaska, Japan and Australia, Bill said.

Similar to Squanto, Bill is teaching and spreading the Native American ways and knowledge, all while feeding new people traditional Navajo foods.