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Nonprofit program Escala helps local immigrants fulfill business dreams during pandemic

Pedro Benedito Chimo Mandriz (Courtesy)

When Pedro Benedito Chimo Mandriz’s family returned to their home country of Angola, he stayed in the U.S. to pursue his dream of running his own restaurant.

Years later, the Lorton baker has taken a step to turning that dream into a reality after starting a pastry business in 2021 with the help of Escala, a rebooted counseling and business assistance program run by the nonprofit Northern Virginia Family Service.

Mandriz, 29, is one of 100 people who have benefited from Escala during the pandemic.

While working part-time at Manchester Bagel in Franconia, he took a class with Escala and launched Freaking Good Cakes, which specializes in German fruit cakes but also offers cupcakes and custom orders, all made out of his home.

“I was having the idea that to have or own a business in America, the only way is by doing…loans, and they showed me, no, that’s not the only way,” Mandriz said. “It helped open my eyes.”

Escala started in 2001 and stopped in 2017 before being rebooted during the pandemic. Its name comes from the Spanish verb escalar, meaning to climb, a nod to the program’s bilingual services.

The program’s small business counselor, Liga Brige, helps entrepreneurs develop their business ideas with marketing and financial assessments, frequently helping startups launch from owners’ homes.

“The majority of businesses established during those past years were usually in construction, in day care…in cleaning businesses and food,” Brige said.

During the pandemic, Escala’s participants have typically focused on the culinary arts, including female food service workers who realize they can prepare certain foods out of their homes, Brige says.

Known as food cottage laws, Virginia’s code lets private homes make some low-risk items without a food inspection, from baked goods to candies, dry seasonings, roasted coffee, and more.

“There are laws which allow you to produce from home certain foods, certain products which do not require a lot of licensing,” Brige said.

Most participants in Escala are Hispanic women, typically aged 36 to 55. Many were professional chefs in the hospitality industry and affected by the pandemic, while others were cooking out of their homes.

Escala’s successes so far include:

The program relies on government funding, and Northern Virginia Family Service plans to seek more grant money to expand Escala from Fairfax and Arlington counties for their upcoming fiscal years, which start in July.

Liga currently serves as the one-stop shop coordinator, but she hopes to have another counselor provide assistance to reach as many industries as possible.

Restricted to low-income adults in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland, the program offers counseling and workshops for free. A nine-week course costs $300.

Mandriz’s ultimate goal is to run his own restaurant that serves food from his country. His advice to new entrepreneurs? Take risks and listen to others’ expertise.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Most of the people that want to go into business…they should be open to [listening] to other people’s information. They’re going to have a solid ground where they can build their business.”

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