How a smart refrigerator helps build community

Small business owner receives loan to expand his and other micro-restaurant concepts during pandemic

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Alejandro Flores-Muñoz remembers his mother going door-to-door to sell her homemade flan and cheesecake to support her family.

Today, the 31-year-old Capitol Hill resident realizes how beneficial a smart refrigerator — like the one he recently purchased for his two restaurant concepts — would have been for his mother’s business. A smart refrigerator essentially could have allowed her to double the capacity she was preparing, and in turn, selling, Flores-Muñoz said.

“That little bit more can mean so much to a family that is struggling,” he said.

Flores-Muñoz is an immigrant from Mexico. His mother relocated him and his brother from Guadalajara to California in 1997 when Flores-Muñoz was 7. He is a 2012 recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provided him with work authorization as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.

Flores-Muñoz made his way to Denver in 2016 because of a job opportunity. A couple years later, Flores-Muñoz and his business partner purchased a food truck called Stokes Poke.

Aside from the “joy of getting to share authentic food,” Flores-Muñoz saw an opportunity in food service, he said.

In May 2019, Flores-Muñoz decided to leave the job he relocated to Colorado for so he could dedicate himself full-time to growing the food truck business. A little while later, he also started another business venture called Combi Taco, which is a ghost kitchen featuring family recipes that operates out of CloudKitchens in Denver’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

When COVID-19 hit, Flores-Muñoz, like many other restaurateurs, had to figure out a way to keep his businesses afloat through the pandemic.

It was about “pivoting in a time of crisis for the food industry,” Flores-Muñoz said. “I really dove into the virtual concept.”

He did some research and learned about the new smart refrigerator technology. With the smart refrigerator, Flores-Muñoz can expand his businesses and reach more customers. It can be set up at a stationary location — a corporate office, hospital or college campus, for some examples — and stocked daily with fresh, prepackaged meals from Flores-Muñoz’s restaurants. It works similarly to a vending machine, in that customers can swipe their credit card and choose which meal they want, Flores-Muñoz said. Proceeds from each sale goes directly to the restaurant concept, Flores-Muñoz added.

The smart refrigerator can hold about 100 meals, Flores-Muñoz said, and because it can hold such a capacity, Flores-Muñoz plans on partnering with other local micro-restaurant concepts, particularly those owned by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) restaurateurs, he said.

“Building community is important,” Flores-Muñoz said. “I see this refrigerator as an opportunity for us all to grow our businesses.”

To purchase the smart refrigerator, Flores-Muñoz applied for, and was awarded, a $4,000 COVID Pivot Loan from the Colorado Solidarity Fund, LLC., which is a member-managed investment club.

“Our members are interested in local businesses thriving,” said Paul Bindel, co-president of the Colorado Solidarity Fund. “We see investing in the main street economy as a way of helping more dollars circulate locally and stay local.”

Flores-Muñoz is one of two recipients who were approved in December for the COVID Pivot Loan, which was created during the pandemic specifically for businesses that had to make a significant and new pivot to their operations in order to survive the pandemic, Bindel said.

“What excited us about his (Flores-Muñoz’s) proposal,” Bindel said, “is his desire to work with other food producers.”

Flores-Muñoz is still determining the location of his first smart refrigerator, but he hopes to eventually purchase more and implement them throughout Denver-metro, partnering with even more small businesses to offer a variety of local food selections.

Flores-Muñoz believes immigrants add a lot to communities, and that their contributions should not be ignored.

“As a first-generation immigrant, I’ve come to realize there are barriers,” Flores-Muñoz said. But with the difficulties also comes some successes, he added. “And the success here is building community and generational wealth.”

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