Finding Yourself with Food
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alexis Emm
“I never see anything that I do as a waste of time,” Clara Cedeno said, “because once you start seeing things as a waste of time, you start having all these regrets.”
You can learn something from every experience, she explained.
Clara’s journey brought her from a financially secure career in technology to the world of small business ownership. She plans to open a Latin-American restaurant, La Patria Café, at 115 Green St. in the Hawley-Green Historical District later this summer or early fall.
Though Clara moved to Syracuse in 2012, the New York City transplant didn’t truly get to know the city for a few years. Running global partner services for a technology company, she was working from home or traveling most days. So, she was slightly reluctant to embrace her new hometown, and not quite sure what to embrace, she remembered.
As time went on, passion for her job began to wane.
“I found myself in this place of having almost an existentialist crisis in some form or fashion,” Clara said.
She began wondering what her purpose was.
As a single mother, her daughter had been Clara’s driving force and motivation behind her hard work in the technology field. Each time a potential promotion came up, she faced fear; but she had a daughter to provide for, Clara explained.
“As females, it’s very easy for us to find our purpose in our families, in our children,” she said. “We sometimes forget that we have a life to live for ourselves.”
She found herself wondering what she wanted to be when she “grew up,” Clara joked. She felt she needed to reconnect with herself.
In the midst of this existential quandary, she applied for Syracuse University’s online MBA program. Furthering her education might help her technology career, she thought. It might awaken a renewed spirit and purpose.
The process was difficult. She had to juggle competing priorities of family, work and online coursework. Not wanting to disappoint herself or anyone around her, she didn’t give up. All the while, a dream was simmering on the back burner.
The idea of running a restaurant had been on Clara’s mind for a long time. She’d enjoyed working in restaurants in New York City. As she climbed the corporate ladder
in technology, though, it never grew to be anything more than a dream. It was a pleasant thought — she’d always loved entertaining — but she didn’t think of it as more than a hobby.
“But, then, as it started to continually creep up, all of the sudden, it was at the forefront of my mind,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do.’”
The prospect of leaving her comfortable and reliable career in technology terrified her, though.
Before long, Clara found herself browsing potential properties online. She found a few options, but then one jumped out: 115 Green St. in Syracuse, across from Laci’s Tapas Bar. It belonged to Laci’s owners, Laura Serway and Cindy Seymour. As a customer at Laci’s, Clara was familiar with the local business owners, but didn’t know them well.
The location intrigued Clara, so she made an appointment to see the space. She invited her boyfriend — now fiancé — to come along. After seeing the space, she asked for his feedback. He admitted he didn’t see anything positive about the space.
While Clara wasn’t completely sold on it yet — “the fear was still there,” she remembered — his response crushed her.
The next day, Clara knew she needed some alone time to clear her mind. She got in the car and started driving. She had no particular destination in mind, but found herself back in the Hawley-Green District at Laci’s, asking if Laura or Cindy was available. Laura came down and recognized Clara as a past customer.
“What transpired next, I would have never, ever imagined happening,” Clara said. “She brought me across the street. We sat out in the back. I told her what my concept was, and she said, ‘I love it.’”
Laura told her to think about funding and make an offer. Then she added, “I will tell you right now that you have to have skin in the game.”
“Well, in my opinion, there’s no other way to do anything than to have skin in the game,” Clara replied.
“We’ll mentor you,” Laura said. “Whatever you need.”
Laura and Cindy have stayed true to their word, helping Clara with everything from reviewing her business plan to making neighborhood introductions and connections to advising on financials.
Once she worked out the financing, Clara made an offer and closed on the property in late October.
Since then, it’s been “a hell of a rollercoaster ride,” Clara said with a laugh.
When deciding on La Patria Café’s concept, she knew she wanted to stay true to her roots. Her family is from the Dominican Republic and Clara was born in the United States. She’s a proud Latina and proud American, she said. Her first hometown was New York City, and now she’s falling in love with Syracuse.
“So, how can I bring all these things together?” she asked herself.
Clara immediately decided she wanted to open a Latin-American restaurant, to entertain her fellow Syracusans and introduce them to flavors they might not know yet, “in an environment and ambiance that is casual yet elegant; fun yet social,” she said. She’s planning to use her own recipes. Guests can expect primarily Latin-American and Latin-Caribbean dishes, such as ceviche, Cuban sandwiches and black bean soup.
In the process of creating her new business, Clara’s partnered, brainstormed and collaborated with a number of people in the area, including CNY Latino’s Marisol Hernandez and Hugo Acosta, members of the Hawley-Green community, the city of Syracuse and the WISE Women’s Business Center.
As she’s waited on approval from the city for various pieces of the project, Clara’s worked on whatever details she can herself, from painting to landscaping to sanding the floor.
“As a small business owner, you start to learn what your level of commitment truly is to the business,” she said. “You learn that it is tiring. It’s frustrating. Then, you have to figure out — how do you keep the dream alive while not overtiring yourself to the point where you hate what you’re doing?”
She’s learned to switch things up and be flexible, Clara said. For example, she added, she’s had to prioritize competition of certain restaurant spaces over others and arrive at her ideal place in a different way than she’d first anticipated.
As she’s gleaned knowledge from her entrepreneurial experiences thus far, Clara’s moved closer to determining an opening day, but she’s remaining flexible on the specific date at this point. At the time of publication, she’s anticipating opening La Patria Café in late summer or early fall.
The most recent lesson she’s learned is one the world of technology introduced her to: the importance of sense of urgency.
“Nobody else is going to have the sense of urgency that you have,” Clara explained. “You have to make it come across in one way or another to get people on board with you, to get what you need in a timely fashion. It’s your concept. It’s your business. It’s your passion.” SWM