With the lunch time rush having subsided, Santa Mora is able to step out from around the counter to take a brief break at Coco’s BBQ, her newest business venture. It’s a cozy outpost of Caribbean and Hispanic cuisine that she owns on Broad Street in New Britain, in a small building that practically sits in the shadow of the city’s large “Welcome to Little Poland.”
Quite the entrepreneur, this single mother from the Dominican Republic, now owns four businesses in Central Connecticut.
For sure, there has always been an element of risk , however, Mora, who ventured to New Britain a decade ago knowing virtually nothing about the city except there was a hair-styling job for her there, is someone willing to take a chance, especially if it appeals to her business sense.
“I keep my eyes open for an opportunity,” she said. “If it is good, I grab it.” In her city of birth, Santo Domingo, the United States is considered the best country in the world for opportunities, Mora said. “If you aren’t going to take advantage of these opportunities,” she asks, “why come here?”
Today, Mora currently oversees Coco’s and three other “opportunities” she has found in central Connecticut. The oldest is Las Caribbenas Salon and Barber at 472 Main Street in New Britain that she opened a couple years after arriving in Connecticut. Since
then, she has added Coco’s Restaurant and Lounge in Meriden, Coco’s Bakery on Capitol Avenue in Hartford, and just four months ago Coco’s BBQ debuted.
Mora chose to include Coco’s for the name of her more recent ventures, she said, because it has a “tropical” feel and is easy to pronounce and remember.
Coco’s BBQ embodies not only the owner’s sense of opportunity and her strong desire to be her own boss, but also her persistence.
Mora’s new restaurant is open seven days a week and attracts a steady stream of customers. The majority of her patrons are Puerto Rican, Mora said, adding that her diverse and inexpensive menu also is building a following from the nearby Polish community and other non-Hispanics.
The busiest period is from around 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., when she offers lunch specials. Most customers line up at her counter for takeout, but there also some table space and several stools, both tall and short, available for on-site dining.
The menu features various barbecue items, chicken, beef and seafood, as well more ethnic dishes such as tri mofongo, a fried plantain favorite of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and sancocho, a hearty stew that is one of the traditional national dishes of the Dominican Republic.
Sofrito is used to spice and season many of the dishes, she said. She uses a homemade version of the Spanish cooking staple that is prepared locally. “It’s the best,” she said.
The ambience at Coco’s may exude the bachata rhythm reflecting the owner’s Dominican background but her cooking is eclectic, taking into consideration Spanish, American and Polish tastes and even includes spaghetti and potato soup.
The customers who come in from Little Poland particularly like the ribs, chicken and the potato dishes, she said.
Mora said she learned to cook from her father who has a restaurant in Miami, from her restaurant experience during a stint in Panama and from her mother who helps out in the kitchen on trips north from her Florida home and is clearly the cook preferred by Santa’s children. “They cry when she leaves,” she adds.
The Mora family had migrated from Santo Domingo to Florida and then moved to New York City where Santa graduated from high school. Eventually, the family left Manhattan and returned to Florida and Santa got into the hairstyling business.
About 10 years ago, Mora came to New York City on a vacation and mentioned to a Dominican friend she was looking for a hairstyling job. Her friend knew someone in New Britain who had an opening. A call was made and soon that acquaintance came to the city and took Santa to Connecticut and helped her out with a place to stay until she got settled.
“I knew no one here,” she recalled. “It was God’s purpose that brought me to New Britain.” And when an opportunity arose for Mora to rent some space in a hair salon, she eagerly grabbed it and soon set up shop there with five stations and began hiring people.
Meanwhile, Mora was building up enough money to move into a bigger site on Main Street that would become Las Caribbenas Salon and Barber. This shop has diversified and now also sells dresses.
Mora is proud that as a single mother she was able to support her two sons and a daughter and guide them through school and on to college. Now a grandmother to three young girls, she sees herself as an example for other women who are in similar situations, demonstrating to them that “you can do it.”
Today, her children play important roles in her businesses. Daughter Nathalie runs the beauty salon, son Anthony is in charge of the restaurant and lounge in Meriden and another son, Gary, covers for her on weekends at Cora’s barbecue allowing her to go to church and occasionally get off her feet at home, and even watch movies on television.
The popular Spanish-language novellas are not her thing, she notes, because following their addictive plots might distract her from her work.
Mora’s late afternoon break is briefly interrupted when a Puerto Rican couple comes in from the rain for something to eat. Mora chats with them amicably in Spanish as she puts together their takeout orders of yellow rice with barbecue ribs and with rotisserie pork.
The woman is one of her regulars and hardly a day passes without her picking up something, Mora later explains. “People keep coming back, that is a good sign,” she suggests smiling.