We continue spotlighting Black-owned businesses in Jefferson Parish throughout Black History Month and beyond with this Spend Local Spotlight. If you’re craving authentic Louisiana cuisine, look no further than Estralita’s Café. Called “the little place with the big taste,” Estralita’s has been a Westwego staple for over 30 years. In fact, the restaurant just celebrated its 30th anniversary on February 7th. Owned by lifelong New Orleanian Estralita Soniat, the restaurant serves up popular home-style Louisiana dishes six days a week!
We caught up with Ms. Estralita to talk about what it takes to keep a business up-and-running for three decades.
Tell us a little bit about your business. What does your business do?
I own and operate a small restaurant in Westwego, LA. We serve many Louisiana dishes, such as gumbo, red beans and rice, poboys, BBQ ribs and seafood. We also offer daily specials like shrimp stew, seafood pastas, Salisbury steak, jambalaya, stuffed peppers and homemade desserts. We do all the desserts in-house daily. Our most popular dishes are sweet potato, pecan and coconut pies, bread pudding with praline sauce and cake, which changes daily depending upon what I feel like baking. The good thing about Estralita’s is that our menu changes all the time with the Specials. I believe that variety is the spice of life when it comes to good food.
What made you want to open your business? What inspired you?
I had worked in fast foods for 15 years and always in a management position since I was 18 years old. My love for cooking came through my grandmother and my mom, who were both excellent cooks. After working at Popeyes for seven years and having spent some time talking with Al Copeland about how he started his business, I did some praying and decided, if I could a business for someone else and be good it, I could also do it for myself. I remember going to my last Christmas party at Popeyes and seeing Al Copeland there and sharing with him that I was leaving the company to start my own restaurant. He encouraged me to do so and said he was happy for me. He said to me, “If it doesn’t work out, as long as I have a company, you will always have a job.” Well, it is 30 years later and I’m still standing.
What do you love most about your business? Please explain.
What I love most about my business is seeing customers come back again and again. I have met so many people since I have been in business. Most of them, I know by name. I have seen three generations of families patronize my restaurant and tell me how their mom and dad brought them to Estralita’s when they were children. Now they are adults and are bringing their children! I love the fact that I am in control of his this business operates and that I can manage it in the way I would to be treated if I were working for someone. Being able to help someone if I could with no one telling me I couldn’t do it. Over the past 30 years, I have employed over 50 people on the West Bank. A lot of young people whom I was able to groom for the work world have come back to tell me thank you for teaching them how to be a good employee. Some of them are in management positions now and they told me because of the training they received when they worked for it, it helped them to further themselves to higher positions in the companies for which they are now working. This is why I know it was not just about the food, but it is also about me giving back. I feel a great sense of pride in being able to do that (especially for the young people of our community).
What is your favorite part about doing business in Jefferson Parish?
I was born and raised here. I attended Riverdale High School and I can’t tell you what pride I feel to have a business in the area I grew up. I moved to the West Bank in 1989 and have been a resident here ever since. I find that having to do business in Jefferson Parish is rewarding in that when I first started out, I didn’t know a lot of things, but through good support from public officials, I was able to obtain everything I needed to know. When I first opened up in Westwego, I was told I wouldn’t last in business here. Well, a higher power said “not so! I have placed you there for a reason.” I don’t know what that reason is other than to say that the people of Westwego have treated me kindly and with respect and to this, I would like to say THANK YOU!
How important is it for your business that people spend their dollars locally? How does it help you?
It is very important that people spend their dollars locally, especially to a small business like mine. I only have one location and every dollar we make is important to keep us in the game. The local dollars is our most important incoming revenue because they are repeat customers. Knowing they look forward to coming to my restaurant gives me the tenacity to push forward and go on.
What are some of the biggest challenges your business has faced during the pandemic? Did your business have to pivot?
The COVID pandemic was not so challenging for my business because 75% of it was already carry-out service. We made necessary changes put in place by authorities and moved on. We never closed, only changed operations on two days where we were open til 7. Now, we close every day at 4:00, and this was so we could get home without having to work long hours and be safe.
What is one of your proudest business accomplishments?
I was asked to feed the military troops at the Alario Center during the outbreak of the pandemic. I received a call over the phone from the military saying I was highly recommended for this job because of my good food and friendly service. I turned in a bid and was selected to be given the contract. This lasted from the last week of March 2020 until August 2020. If I didn’t have this business, I would have had to close down as so many businesses had to do. Again, I know it was a higher power looking out for me. Thank you!
What is your best advice for entrepreneurs?
My best advice for anyone in business is to stand strong when you know this is what you were called to do, and learn how to pray and give God his glory. He will help every step of the way, through good times and bad times. Another wise piece of advice is that you don’t have to be jealous of anyone else. God has enough to bless everyone, just be the best you can be at what you do, and never stop begin open to good advice. The last thing I would say is get yourself a good mentor, someone who can encourage you and help you navigate through some rough times. Networking is good if you are networking with people who are willing to support your vision as you help them support theirs.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from running a business?
I have learned over the years that running a business isn’t a piece of cake. There will be obstacles. You have to learn to stand firm if you are the leader, you are the example for all who work for you. They must have confidence in you to enjoy working in your business. This is where you earn their respect and if they do that, you will have a loyal team that wants to see the business prosper. Your workers must share your vision.
You received a JEDCO Loan for your business. Can you talk about that process?
I received a loan through JEDCO that truly saved my business when the pandemic first started. With it, I was able to buy supplies I needed to take on the contract with the military. It came at just the right time. Thank you, JEDCO!
I also want to thank Goldman Sachs for the Class I took under their umbrella. It made me a better business owner. To my mentor, Dianne Sclafani (LSBDC), I love you for all the help you have given me over the years.
Hungry? You can order from Estralita’s Cafe online. Check out her website & menus here.