Soto’s Kitchen opened in September 2017 and serves delicious traditional Venezuelan food such as arepas, tostones, and pabellons. As tasty as the food is, this story isn’t about that. Those articles can be found here and here.
No, this story goes beyond the food and goes straight to the heart of America herself. Many Americans today talk about making America great, but want to deny the very essence of her greatness: People. People from all walks of life looking to make a better life for themselves, their family, and their community. This nation was built on the backs of immigrants; immigrants that chose to come here and much of it by those that didn’t. It is America’s people that make her great; diverse people of varying thoughts, ideas, and of course, cuisine.
Aristides Soto and his family came to America from Venezuela. I’m sure you’ve read some of the horrific news stories coming from there. Aristides talked about having to wait in line for over eight hours for gas and only getting rationed eight gallons. Food was scarce. Medicine was scarce. Aristides told me a heartbreaking story of losing his son in 2009 because of the lack of medical care. It was a life lost that shouldn’t have been. Life in Venezuela was growing more untenable, more violent, and it wasn’t letting up. He had to get him and his family out of there if he wanted any hope for a better life.
The Soto family left Venezuela and went to Colombia, where they waited for their visas to gain entry into America. After a couple of years, their visas were granted and Aristides and his family landed in Jacksonville, Florida in November of 2015.
Like many new immigrants coming to America, Aristides worked manual labor jobs, first in the construction industry, then took advantage of the growing gig economy and drove for Lyft and Uber. He also worked as a delivery driver for a Pizza Hut. But Aristides was always an entrepreneur. In Venezuela he opened a hardware store. In Columbia, he and his wife sold jewelry. In coming to America, he knew he wanted to open his own business with his family. But what business that would be was yet to be determined.
It was an average school day for Aristides’ children when one of his daughters, a precocious 8-year-old third grader at the time, came home and excitedly told her father about a new friend she had made who was from Venezuela. She begged him to go to this new friend’s house to meet them. Aristides and his wife protested at first, saying things all parents say when meeting their child’s new friend, “Not until we meet the parents.” Kids are funny though. When they want something, they really don’t let it go. After continued pleadings, Aristides and his wife finally relented and decided to go and meet this new Venezuelan friend of their daughter’s.
As the family walked up and knocked on the door, Aristides was not prepared for what met him on the other side. The parents were old childhood friends of Aristides when he was a teenager in Venezuela. What are the chances? You’d probably have better chances being mauled by a polar bear and a regular bear on the same day than this happening to you. As newfound friends and old childhood friends connected and re-connected over a shared culture, Aristides and his friend began kicking around the idea of partnering up and opening a restaurant. They both cook and Jacksonville isn’t exactly a hotbed of Venezuelan food. They found a need and filled it and in September 2017, Soto’s Kitchen was born.
It was a difficult road to be sure. Neither one of them had any experience running a restaurant. The closest connection either one of them had to the restaurant industry was Aristides and only as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut. They both are learning by doing. And what they’re doing seems to be successful. Soto’s Kitchen is serving up authentic Venezuelan food made from scratch daily. It’s the type of place Aristides and his family would go themselves; a place where other Venezuelans can come and get a taste of home. It’s also a place where Americans can come and experience something new and bold.
It’s a great thing to see what happens when you combine the immigrant spirit with the entrepreneurial spirit. Both immigrants and entrepreneurs both have to adapt to sleepless nights, self-doubt, and a steep learning curve. In fact, according to a 2018 Forbes article, immigrants are “twice as likely to be entrepreneurs.” For Aristides, America represents a way to start over in a place that will allow his family to thrive; to provide a service and product that is not only needed in Jacksonville, but wanted. Soto’s Kitchen represents both the realization of a dream, and a hope for the future of his family.
We, as Americans, should celebrate that mindset, not snuff it out. We should not live in a culture of fear of immigrants, but a culture of allowing those that truly want to seek a better life to do so. Without the Aristides Sotos’ of the world sharing their gifts and talents, America will cease to be great.
3809 Southside Blvd
Jacksonville, FL 32216