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Westwood microbusinesses join collective to maintain dream, thrive during pandemic

Cultura Chocolate, Re:Vision spearhead effort
Cultura Chocolate
Posted at 7:35 PM, Mar 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-19 23:10:09-04

DENVER — There is strength in numbers. Members of Rise Westwood Collective can attest to that.

Damaris Ronkanen, owner of Cultura Chocolate, a Latina owned "bean to bar" chocolate making company, says individually the microbusinesses that are part of the collective would have struggled to survive during the pandemic. Together, they have thrived.

Ground Cacao Beans

Ronkanen launched Cultura Chocolate in October of 2012.

"We make all of our own chocolate starting with cacao beans that we import from Mexico and other countries in Latin America," she said. "The majority of our products are different chocolate bars."

She said they do a combination of single origin chocolate bars or highlight different chocolate from the different regions where they source the cacao.

"We also focus on different chocolate beverages, which is the main way chocolate is consumed in Mexico," she said. "We do a number of different types of hot chocolates and sipping chocolates."

She pointed to a big jar with golden colored cocoa inside.

"This one is our Pinole," she said. "It's like a toasted yellow corn, cinnamon and sugar, so it's another thick beverage."

Ronkanen expanded her business, opening up a cafe about the same time the pandemic hit. She then had to close it.

"When the pandemic first started, there weren't a lot of resources for a small business our size," she said.

So she and several other microbusiness owners formed Rise Westwood Collective and created a small space where they could combine resources and sell products together.

Monica Villalobos is also a member. She owns Cabrona Coffee.

Cabrona Coffee

"Before the pandemic started, we were scheduled to open our own site here on the west side of town," she said. "We found ourselves in a very interesting bind."

Villalobos said she joined the Collective last April, and that it gave her a way to stay in touch with the community.

"We had a real good buzz going leading up to our opening and a lot of people were waiting. The neighborhood was looking forward to having us there, so this allowed us to keep the dream alive and keep it moving forward."

Villalobos said her goal is "to be the premier Latino-owned coffee shop in Denver, using traditional recipes."

Jose Avila has a very similar dream for his X'tabai food truck, which specializes in cuisine from the Yucatan. Avila, who has worked in the restaurant field for years, said he had to brainstorm when the pandemic hit because his food truck business slowed down.

That's when he came up with the idea to start cooking barbacoa.

Jose Avila

"I've always been craving barbacoa from Mexico," he said, "especially on Sundays."

Avila sources the fresh meat in Wellington.

"Every Saturday, we go up there and prep the animal," he said, "and get the [underground] pit going. As soon as the animal hits Denver, it goes into the pit for 12 hours, and we pull it out on Sunday by 7 a.m., and by 8 a.m., we're selling it by the pound."

Avila said he plans to open a walk-up restaurant specializing in pozole, soon.

The collective's space is owned by Re:Vision, a nonprofit serving southwest Denver.

RISE Westwood Collective

"Our vision is making sure that the culture of the neighborhood stays intact, stays in the forefront of any development that happens," said JoAnna Cintron, executive director of Re:Vision. "We work in food access and food justice, promoting health equity in the neighborhood."

She said part of the nonprofit's mission is to create a locally-owned economy.

"We're really focused on hiring local entrepreneurs and building up local businesses that are representative of the community around us," she said.

"We all have different skill sets," Ronkanen told Denver7. "Some help with marketing and some with bookkeeping. We all try to lend a hand."

Avila said he's very appreciative.

"All this social media, especially business-wise is new to me. I didn't know the importance of having good social media," he said.

Cintron is happy it's working out.

"I'm not surprised," she said, "and couldn't be more proud of how we've all come together."