Opening a restaurant in a post-pandemic economy can be a risky venture, especially for those without a formal background in business.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find the professional support or gain the experience that you need to succeed as a first-time restaurant owner. In this episode, Gene Marks and Chef Derick Lopez, the executive chef and owner of the Freakin Rican Restaurant Corp., discuss Derick’s journey as a small business owner and how he built a thriving restaurant on his own.

Podcast Key Highlights

  • What Advice Does Derick Have for Aspiring Business Owners Who Want to Open a Restaurant?

    • As with any business, you really should have a passion for your work because when it gets tough, it’s the only thing that will pull you through.
    • You need tenacity and a strong work ethic to be a business owner since it will be your responsibility to not only ensure that all your employees are performing up to standard, but because you’ll also have to take care of any unfinished work.
    • Keep personal finances separate from those of your business. While it’s important to pay yourself, the majority of your profits should be reserved strictly for business expenditures.
    • Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors or professional support to help you address the aspects of your business that you’re unsure about.
    • Always make time for yourself because the only way that you can continue to grow your business is by nurturing yourself; you have to make sure that you’re good so that both your restaurant and your employees are good too.
  • How Has Derick’s Intuition Helped Him as a Business Owner?

    • Trusting his internal compass has enabled Derick to create and fine tune his recipes to perfection.
    • Derick’s intuition is also what guided him to make a personal connection with each of his customers and build a loyal customer base.
  • How Does the Freakin Rican Restaurant Corp. Approach Its Employees?

    • Because it’s been hard to attract and retain talent after COVID, Derick has made a strong effort to put himself in his employees’ shoes.
    • When Derick makes money, he wants his employees to make money too; he tries to give back in whatever way he can and be the best manager he can be with his employees.
  • How Can Restaurant Owners Create a Positive Working Environment for Their Employees?

    • Just listen to your staff and encourage them to voice their needs; acknowledge what they’re going through and try to meet them in the middle.
    • One strategy is to simply sit down with each employee for 15 minutes and get to know them a little bit better.
  • How Can Restaurant Owners Keep Up With All the Different Health Regulations?

    • When you have so many employees, you really have to constantly remind them about the various protocols because any little health code violation can result in a hefty fine or worse.
    • However, at the end of the day, the drive to maintain all these regulations should come from your concern for your customers.
  • What Are the Freakin Rican Restaurant’s Goals for the Next 10 Years?

    • Open multiple locations
    • Expand their product line
    • Recruit a strong solid workforce to support their growth



The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.

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Gene: Hey everybody, it’s Gene Marks, and welcome to another episode of the Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. Today, we’re going to be talking about restaurants and the restaurant industry, and our guest is Chef Derick Lopez. Derick is the executive chef and owner of the Freakin Rican Restaurant Corp. First of all, Derick, thank you so much for joining me. I’m really glad that you’re here to talk about the business.

Derick: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Gene: Yep, this should be fun. So first of all, where are you guys based and how did you get to where you are with the Freakin Rican Restaurant Group?

Derick: Okay. We are located in Queens, Astoria, New York. We’ve been here for five years now, the brick and mortar. The business has been running for about seven years. We started out doing street festivals in Manhattan, Queens, all over the five boroughs, and then it took us about two years to kind of save and self-fund the brick and mortar here in Astoria.

Gene: That is awesome. So overall, five years. So I’m going back in time right now. You were around for a couple of years and then COVID hit. So we’re going to get to that, and I’m sure you’ve got lots of great stories about that. But tell me a little bit about the restaurant. What kind of food do you serve and is it just one location or is it multiple locations? If you can give us an idea.

Derick: Yes. So it is one location. Like I said, it’s in Astoria, Queens. We sell authentic Puerto Rican food just like your grandma would make. I was raised in the Bronx. My mother cooked every single day of my life. So food was always something that was very special in our family because she would cook a meal every single day. It wasn’t about ordering out. And so, my business, we make everything authentic and also, I have my own products, my own seasoning line that consists of adobo, sazon, sofrito, so I do a whole lot.

Gene: Is this your first restaurant?

Derick: This is actually my second. My first I think was a stepping stone. I did a lot of learning. It wasn’t open for that long. I think it was maybe seven, eight months before I had to close. Yes, I learned the hard way. I lost everything and I went back to work full time, and then I came back and I said, you know what? I’m going to do street festivals, and basically worked my way up to self-fund this restaurant.

Gene: Good for you. It’s funny, Michael Jordan always said, “You fail until you succeed.” And I see that with so many. I run a business myself, and I can’t tell you how much money I have spent and lost over the years on failed projects and ventures and whatnot until you figure out what works, hopefully you do. So before you even started the restaurant, before Freakin Rican, where did you sort of get your training? Where did you cut your teeth? How did you learn the business?

Derick: I basically learned on my own. I’ve been on my own since I was maybe about 15 years old, so I often cooked at home for myself, kind of trial and error. I always knew that I would have a restaurant since I was very young. I remember probably being 9, 10 years old and knowing that this is what I was going to do. It’s crazy that I knew so young, but cooking was always a part of my life. I always enjoyed cooking.

Gene: But you enjoy cooking and I’m sure you’re a great chef, and I think yet that’s one part of running that restaurant. How did you learn the other parts of it? I mean, there’s a lot. First of all, let me even ask before you even answer that question, how big is your restaurant now? Approximately how many full-time part-time employees do you have?

Derick: Right now, I have I think about 18 employees. It’s quite a lot. How did I learn? I think I’m still learning.

Gene: Yeah, of course.

Derick: The business is always changing, and when you deal with so many employees and their characters, there’s always a lot of learning to do. And so, I’m still learning. It’s been quite a challenge because I have no business background, but I just kind of went with my internal compass and guide. I always say God or the universe was always putting things in my head, and part of that is intuition. I would just listen to those things and build on that. As far as, let’s say, recipes, I would make one recipe, I would write it down, and then over time I would tweak it and tweak it to make it the best recipe that I could possibly make. And so, I basically did that with every single recipe, and it really was just ideas coming into my mind and just doing it. That’s it, really just everything that came to my mind, I felt like it came to my mind with a purpose. And so, I just followed that and just continued.

Gene: Sure. Do you have any partners or is it just yourself?

Derick: No, just myself.

Gene: That is amazing. Any family members that help you out? Or again, is it just yourself?

Derick: No, actually, my sister’s my assistant. I mean, everyone works for me. No one helps me out. But yes, so my sister is my personal assistant. I’m really like a one man show. It’s been really challenging for the simple reason that I’ve grown this business to over a million dollars pretty much myself. And I’ve for quite some time, I felt kind of burnt out because I was doing everything that now I feel like I’m just coming back with the energy that I had, and now I’m really trying to build a team so that I can continue to grow it the way I envision it in my head. Because one person, a million dollars, it’s almost unheard of. So in order for it to grow, I need to be much more than one person.

Gene: Yeah, you really do. We’ll get to that. It’s funny, you have definitely beaten the odds. I mean, this restaurant’s been around for five years now. You’ve been running it on your own. Like you said, you’ve had no business background or training before you started this up. You self-funded, so I’m sure your capital is tight, so you have to watch every penny that was going out the door. And here you still are running a business grossing more than a million dollars five years later. It’s pretty darn impressive what you’ve done.

Derick: Yes, thank you.

Gene: Yeah, I give you a lot of shout out for that. Having said all those positive things, let’s talk about the negative. So you had a failed restaurant that you tried to get up and running for seven months. That to me, that was your education.

Derick: That was my training.

Gene: Yeah. That was your training.

Derick: It definitely was.

Gene: I don’t know what that cost you in the end, but maybe that was less than what you would’ve paid for culinary school.

Derick: But it was less.

Gene: So you could look at it that way like, okay, I lost all this money, but then again, if I had spent it on a culinary school or whatever, it could have been a lot more. So tell me, people always have this dream of starting up a restaurant, which you’ve read. It’s like the absolute worst idea in the world. It’s like 1 out of every 10 restaurants succeed. You are still around after five years, but you’re beating the odds and you’re doing good. What advice would you have for somebody starting up a restaurant? What mistakes did you make in that first venture that you came out of it saying, “All right, man, when I start this next one up, I’m going to make sure I don’t do these things again.”

Derick: I feel to start up any business, it could be a restaurant, it could be something else. I think you have to be in it for the right reasons, and you really should have some type of passion because it gets tough. And when it gets tough, I think the only thing that will pull you through is the passion for your craft for whatever you like. If you’re not passionate, then I feel you’ll give up a lot faster. As far as my first business, since I had no business background, I thought being an owner was calling the shots, you pay all these employees’ salary. And I thought, okay, so I don’t have to really do much.

Derick: And I learned from that failure that I’m really an example. So if there’s something missing and my employees have to go home, oh, well, I’m going to have to do it. And so, my work ethic really changed 360. And so, now physically, I work, I am on top of the employees as far as the recipe, making sure that everything is consistent. Because with any work, and there’s several hands in the pot, as we say, everyone might do something a bit different that will change your recipe, and you don’t want that. So I think really the lesson that I’ve learned most of all is just tenacity. Tenacity to really be in it.

Gene: It makes sense.

Derick: I don’t know if that makes sense.

Gene: It makes complete sense. And also, like you said earlier, having the passion for what you do, because when things really hit the fan, that’s what you…

Derick: And they often do.

Gene: And they often do. And you think to yourself like, all right, these things are going wrong, but I’m doing this for the right reason and I know why I’m trying to do this. And that is in the end, what sees me through.

Derick: And you know what else?

Gene: Go ahead.

Derick: I’m sorry. You know what else I learned from my first, I learned so many things. It’s just not everything comes to my mind, but another thing that I learned was the finances. So because I was running this restaurant, I felt that okay, I could pay this personal bill and I could do this. And so, the money was all over the place. I didn’t separate the money. Whereas the business that I currently have now, I get paid from that business. So that is the money that I touch. I don’t just touch everything. So the business has its money, and I get paid what I get paid, which is what I live off of. So really separating both because every business goes up and down, and you need that capital where you’re able to say, okay, I’m in a little rut right now, but I have savings for this, so now I’m going to be okay. But if you’re touching everything, then that is going to become a problem.

Gene: I love that as an example. You mentioned about the cash back and forth and all, and I’m assuming you had no accounting background or financial background. You said you really didn’t have any business training.

Derick: Nothing.

Gene: Do you have a bookkeeper now or an accountant now?

Derick: Oh, yes. I have a very good CPA, yes.

Gene: Good. So I guess, that’s another lesson you probably learned from the first business as well. I mean, right now when you talk about lessons coming out of this, do you have any other sort of advisors or mentors, people that you had to learn from somebody how to do this? Don’t tell me it was all self-taught.

Derick: Yeah, no, not really. Just again, I kind of grew up with this passion of food and I kind of knew where I was going. And because I had kind of already done it, but failed at it because I was quite irresponsible to be honest, and just all over the place. I feel that that failure taught me so much. It taught me so much of what not to do and what to do. And so, now with this new business, literally I felt like I was seriously guided and I just followed through with whatever came to my mind and just built on it, built whatever came to my mind. For instance, we were doing festivals. There are so many companies that do festivals and they just sell whatever they sell, but I was busy selling what I was selling. I was connecting with the people so that the following week they would bring their friends.

Derick: And so, literally, I spoke to every single customer, and that customer would tell other people, and before you know it, we would have a line and the other vendors would be like, “Hey, what’s up with them?” But I would make sure, because I love people, that there was that interaction. It wasn’t just, “Okay, you want this” and you’re going to give me the money and I’m going to give you the food. No, I wanted to have that conversation. And so, we just kept on building on that. And I was busy pretty much marketing myself and marketing the name so that everyone would remember the Freakin Rican.

Derick: And so, our banner actually said the Freakin Rican Restaurant, but I didn’t even have a restaurant. And so, people would say, “Oh my God, where’s your restaurant?” And I would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have one, but I will.” So if for some crazy reason, I knew where I was going. And so, even when it came, let’s say, to ordering whatever I needed to order, the average person has doubts on what they’re doing. I never had doubts. So I would order 500 because I knew I would sell them. So everything I did, I did on a big scale because I knew where I was going and because I was so confident and I put in the work, I got there.

Gene: I got it. You mentioned about your team and the employees that you have. You realize after going through a failed venture and then starting up this one and growing it over the past five years, that you can’t do everything. You have a life to live and that it doesn’t mean… It’s funny. People talk about technology and AI and everybody’s going to be out of a job and all. And I don’t know every company I go to, including my own. It’s like you cannot survive without your employees. You need good people. And I’m curious, so what has been your attitude towards your employees? How has that changed and evolved over the years? And what are you striving to do with your employees? What’s your plans over the next few years?

Derick: I think if I could be brutally honest, I feel that it’s been really challenging. That part has been really challenging. I feel, I don’t know what COVID did, but after COVID, people just want to collect the check. But I feel not too many people really want to work for that check. If I could be brutally honest.

Gene: Oh, I hear that all the time.

Derick: Yeah, employees have been something pretty challenging. They’re here today, they’re gone tomorrow. It’s so hard to keep them focused. But thankfully, I’ve had a few that have been with me now for a year, two years, three years. Some of them have gone and came back. So thankfully, it’s just really, I put myself in their shoes and I try to be somewhat of a different owner in the sense of if I make money, I want them to make money. And so, I’ll treat them to lunch. Christmas, I’ll take them to Christmas shows, to dinner. I try to give back whichever way I can because today I’m here. But tomorrow, sometimes life takes a big turn and I believe in karma. So I try to be the best that I can be with my employees.

Gene: The makeup of your staff is anybody in the industry. You have a lot of hourly workers, and that’s a completely different animal than white collar workers or salaried workers. And it takes an entirely different approach to keep them motivated and happy and keep them around, and you are not alone. Anybody else in restaurants, retails try to keep people retained that because easy for them to go. Have you figured anything out? You mentioned you have a few that have been around for a while and a few of them eventually come back as well. I mean, there’s no silver bullet, I get that to doing this. But have you found anything that’s worked for you that’s helped you either attract people to the business or at least keep them around? You mentioned Christmas, getting them a meal or taking them to a show or whatever, but bigger picture than that, benefits come in workplace. What do you do to try and create a good environment for them?

Derick: I mean, I really just try to listen to them, and listen to their needs and what they’re going through and try to meet them in the middle. I feel that us human beings, we have our lives and we have so many problems and so many issues. So lately what I’ve been doing is trying to sit down with each employee maybe 15 minutes in my office and just have them help me with some tedious task in the office and just kind of get to know them a little bit better. So I think that that definitely is something different that perhaps they’re not used to, and I think that helps me understand them and them understand me. So that is kind of the only thing that I’ve been doing different now is just dedicating some undivided attention.

Derick: It could be 15, 20 minutes and just let them talk, let them talk while whatever we’re highlighting, some packing slips that need to be shipped out. But I definitely feel that most of them are happy. Most of them are really trying to do the best that they can. And really, I just keep on trying to work with them as far as how to get better, how to do this better, how to multitask. If you had two tasks to do, maybe you could start this, and while this is going, you’ll do this. So you’re taking care of two things at one time. And so, it’s almost like showing them how to work smarter and not necessarily harder.

Gene: Yeah, I think that’s a great approach. I hear time and time, and I see it. You have a younger generation of workers, they need constant feedback, supervision, tell me what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong. And I think having that ongoing communication with them, it really is important. So Derick, you run a business in a city that is probably one of the most regulated cities, if not the most regulated city in the country. And I’ve written about this before. I’m in Philly, which is bad enough, but I don’t know how anybody runs a business in New York. Give us an idea of the kind of regulations that you’re dealing with running a restaurant in New York. If you were speaking right now, and I was Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, what would you be telling me? How could I be making your life easier as a restaurant owner in the city?

Derick: That’s tough because I don’t really follow kind of anything, to be quite honest. I’m in this little bubble of the Freakin Rican Restaurant. So really, what I know is I have a ton of bills. The unemployment insurance went up through COVID. As far as the restaurant, you have a lot of things that the hood has to be cleaned legally every three months, those things. But I don’t watch news. So I’m literally in this little bubble focused on my business.

Gene: How do you keep up on that stuff? Even there’s safety rules, there’s rules for keeping your food and a certain way.

Derick: Well, yeah, that’s a different story. That’s the health department. I mean, my employees maybe think I’m crazy, but because when you have so many employees, you kind of got to constantly remind them, “Don’t be direct there.” “Make sure you’re rotating the desserts” or this, because for every little thing, if the health department comes, it’s $200, it’s $500. I mean, the littlest thing is $200. So you want to be on top of that. If you leave a wet rag on the counter, it’s $200. So all those things I’m on top of.

Gene: And by the way, I’m assuming you know that because you found out the hard way, right?

Derick: Oh, yes. And it adds up. And so, of course, with my staff, I’m always on top of them as far as those things. And as far as cross-contamination, the cleanliness, I’m a little OCD as far as cleanliness. And if you’re working with chicken and someone else is working with pork, move away from each other because this is how people get sick. And I really care about my business. It’s not so much about the violations, but I really care about my business and I really care about my customers. I don’t want my customers getting sick. I don’t want to give my customer something that’s not good. I’d rather throw it out. But the average restaurant won’t do that. It’s so crazy that a lot of restaurants are just not up to code.

Gene: They don’t have that.

Derick: They don’t have that discipline. And so, those things drive me crazy. But at the same time, I know the type of business that I have. I have a clean, successful, healthy business.

Gene: Yeah, it’s great to hear. And I know a lot of people don’t have the same attitude that you have, and it’s a little scary, particularly when you’re in the restaurant business. Finally, Derick, you’ve survived COVID, which is amazing. You’re here and you’re growing this business. Obviously you’re learning, you’re getting better at managing people, you’re getting better at managing your finances. I mean, this is a whole learning process for you.

Derick: Oh, yes.

Gene: And with still a ways to go. Where do you see yourself in this business 10 years from now? Do you want to still be the chief chef at this single location restaurant, or do you have any hopes of saying, oh, I want to have a chain, or I want to be that much bigger or do something else?

Derick: I have so many plans that often, I know that when I got into this, I wanted multiple locations, which I kind of started looking for another location now, because in this restaurant, I only sit about 20 people, which is very small, but we’re always so busy that there’s always a ton of people waiting outside on the waiting list. So now it’s time to expand. We need a much larger place. And so, I always wanted several restaurants I wanted in Miami. I wanted in Puerto Rico, here, I also have a product line, like I mentioned before, I make my own adobo, sazon, sofrito. We have our own knives.

Derick: I mean, right now they’re doing shipping outside. We have about 200 orders to ship. So there’s so many things, so many ways I could take this business. And again, I’m going with my guidance. Something tells me, “Oh, do this.” Hey, maybe one day I’ll get tired of the restaurant, and then I could just maybe have products. Who knows? But definitely I envision this being much larger. But of course, that’s why I’m trying to organize a team because I would get a heart attack. I need a strong, solid team to be able to accomplish these things.

Gene: For what it’s worth, the restaurant owners that I know and my clients that have been the most successful, even if they don’t have multiple locations, they have multiple channels of revenues. Like you said, you’re selling knives. They sell branded products. They sell some stuff online. So it’s not just the restaurant itself, but there’s other…

Derick: I feel like now everyone started doing that after COVID. I was doing festivals, and I was already creating my adobo and sofrito again, because it came to my head. I was like, you know what… And then channel, I think it was Channel 11, did a segment on my adobo, and I mean, I thought I was Kim Kardashian. My website crashed. It was so many orders, but that got us through and actually made our numbers beat the previous year because of that. So go figure.

Gene: That’s amazing. Sometimes things like that do happen. One final question, I’ll let you go. I don’t clearly don’t know about your personal life if you’re married or not or whatever, but how do you balance your work life? I mean, being in this business, it’s like you’re working 20 hours a day, so do you make that a priority to balance?

Derick: Well, I think that’s why my marriage… Yeah, continue. I’m sorry.

Gene: No, I was saying do you try to make it a priority to try and balance, or do you work out?

Derick: Well, I started this company with my ex-husband, so I was married for 10 years. I think our divorce was final, probably not even a year ago. I think it’s challenging when you are a perfectionist, when you are a go-getter, when you have so much tenacity and you want to grow, it’s hard to make time for someone that is not perhaps on the same page that you are. Maybe they are a couple of pages behind and it’s hard to meet at the same page. But right now, I try to make time for me because the only way that I will continue to grow this business is by nurturing myself and making sure that I have the me time and meditation and therapy and continuously trying to work on me and making sure that I’m good. So that way I can make sure the restaurant is good, the employees are good. If you’re not good, I mean, what’s going to be good? Nothing.

Gene: Yep, great advice. Chef Derick Lopez is the executive chef and owner of the Freakin Rican Restaurant Corp in Astoria, Queens in New York. Derick, thank you very much. You’ve given us some great insights and fascinating to hear about your life and your business as well, so we appreciate it. We want to wish you the best of luck.

Derick: Thank you so much

Gene: Everyone, you have been listening and watching the Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. Thank you so much for joining me. My name is Gene Marks. If you need any tips or advice or help in running your business, please visit us at or Again, my name is Gene Marks. We’ll see you again next time. Take care.

Gene: Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode of The Hartford Small Visit Ahead podcast. If you like what you hear, please give us a shout-out on your favorite podcast platform. Your ratings, reviews and your comments really help us formulate our topics and help us grow this podcast. So thank you so much. It’s been great spending time with you. We’ll see you again soon.

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