Soraya Rendon

This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Soraya Rendon and her dream to own a restaurant.

My American Dream—or I should I say my Chicago Dream—started when I was 7 years old.

I grew up in Mexico City watching TV shows about Chicago when my mom, a single parent, was working.

I wanted to be free. I dreamed about running my own company, and being a leader. I knew that at even at 7 years old. America was the place of dreams.

Mexico is very old fashioned. I felt that I had only one path there: get married, have children, stay at home.

Not exactly the path for me. I wanted to be free. I dreamt about running my own company, and being a leader. I knew that at even at 7 years old. America was the place of dreams. And as I watched people and shows about Chicago on the TV, I fell in love with that city from afar.

I said one day I would go there.

I left for Chicago when I was 22 years old. I didn’t tell my family. I had only a couple hundred bucks to my name. I couldn’t speak English, didn’t have a job, and didn’t know anyone in Chicago. But I wasn’t a stranger. My dream led me here.

I immediately started job hunting, and applied for a job as a secretary in a mortgage firm. They turned me down, pointing to the fact that I didn’t speak English.

I enrolled in an English class, went back to the same firm and reapplied for a job. They offered me the secretary job, but I declined. I wanted to be a mortgage broker.

The response: You don’t know anything about mortgage banking. Which was true, but I politely reminded them I also didn’t know English the last time they talked to me. I got the job.

I learned everything from scratch including how to make a menu, operations, and even decor.

I was successful in this phase of my career. I topped charts. I had come to Chicago not knowing the language, and now I had successfully launched a career. Then the housing market collapsed in 2008, and suddenly I was looking for a new career.

My experience was with the mortgage business and so I started to look for opportunities to buy businesses with prime locations. I found a tiny restaurant for sale. Luckily, I had saved enough cash to buy it and I did what I’m best at: I leaped.

I became the shiny new owner of Chilam Balam, a tiny restaurant in downtown Chicago.

The space is small and cozy, seats only 12 tables, and serves tapas-inspired small plates with Mexican flavors.

When I first opened I didn’t know anything. I learned everything from scratch including how to make a menu, operations, and even decor. We went for a Mexican look with a touch of rustic, not your typical bright colors.

And I have completely learned the role of being a restaurant owner. It’s not glamorous, or some huge success story. But it’s mine and it’s successful, and I’m happy.

Learning how to run a restaurant was a lot like learning English. It took dedication, and drive, and commitment. But in the end, I’m more learned, more experienced, and more successful.

I pour my heart and soul into this little restaurant. It’s a hard business to be in. There are bumps in the road. When my chef left, I put on an apron and jumped into the kitchen. I wait tables when I have to. But it’s working. My guests love Chilam Balam. And I have completely learned the role of being a restaurant owner. It’s not glamorous or some huge success story. But it’s mine and it’s successful, and I’m happy.

America is the land of the free, and the home of the brave. I’d like to think of myself that way.

It isn’t huge, but I’m less than 5-feet tall. I don’t need a lot of space. Chilam Balam, with its 12 tables and 5 nights a week, is large enough to hold my American dream.

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Written by
Soraya Rendon, 41, is very passionate about fitness and food. When she's not at Chilam Balam, she's at the gym or scouting different restaurants.