It starts like many immigrant stories in Miami — with a big dream fueled by family, community, faith, and grit. Since 2006, Chavela Dollar Store has been a staple for the Hispanic community nestled in Little Havana. It serves as more than just a retailer — it's a microcosm of the immigrant experience and a testament to adaptation in the face of adversity.
When Lázaro Montalvo first rented the store on West Flagler and 17th Avenue, the neighborhood was skeptical. Former ventures had fizzled out in the exact location. "Let's see how long they last," was the typical refrain. Doubters wondered if Chavela would manage to escape the same fate.
But Chavela isn't your average bodeguita. Chavela emerged as an unexpected game-changer, shattering expectations with its unique approach. Far from a run-of-the-mill convenience store, Chavela introduced a curated selection driven by a personal understanding of the community's needs. From beverages and dairy delights to sweets and bread, the store's shelves hold a treasure trove of offerings not found in typical grocery stores, with nearly half originating from countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, and El Salvador.
In Lázaro's words, these offerings are more than commodities; they are bridges to former lives. For Lázaro, the Jumbo Hojaldras and Crema Centroamericana are not just products on a shelf. These products mean something to his customers. They "represent the yearning for a piece of their home countries. They are nostalgic, sentimental, letting them remember their youth and connection to the hometown they left behind."
Back in Cuba, Lázaro was a businessman. He started a career in teaching but caught the entrepreneurship bug when a friend opened a business. Despite his family's concern, he decided to leave the security of a teaching career to chase the dream. It was a long journey for the family to establish Chavela, a place that now offers a refuge for refugees and has become a nurturing haven for newcomers confronting the uncertainties of a new life in an unfamiliar land.
In 1994, Lázaro left the shores of Cuba and braved the 90+ mile passage to the United States on a raft. From there, the family started planning. It took patience and determination during their decade-long effort for Chavela to become a reality, during which every member of the Montalvo family contributed their unique talents.
For the first year, they had low sales and only a handful of customers. Through the disappointment, they kept going, believing they would succeed. "We didn't have a clue what products to sell, but we asked customers what they wanted and focused on bringing those products. The next time they came to the store, they saw we listened to them and found what they were looking for. We gained a reputation of trust in the community," Lázaro reflects.
Aside from using their customer's feedback to drive the inventory list, Chavela also became a nucleus in the neighborhood. Lázaro's wife, Isabel, or "Chavela" herself, embodies the store's heart, warmly welcoming patrons and sharing valuable resources to aid newcomers navigating Miami's maze. The store's value transcends mere retail — it offers solutions to customer credit dilemmas and acts as a cultural touchpoint for those adjusting to life in a new country.
Lázaro is most proud of how the family came together to achieve the dream. Each family member has a unique passion and entrepreneurial spirit that has benefited the growth and establishment of the store. Yasnay started Micro-Business Catalyst, helping business owners like her parents with finances and accounting, and her sister Yadira opened Springs Medical Research next door. Chavela spawned a family of entrepreneurs that will transform their trajectory from one generation to the next.
Of course, success wasn't immune to trials. The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed challenges, but according to Yasnay, it was a more familiar Miami headache that caused issues. From 2016 to 2018, construction on Flagler Street bore the most threatening consequences. With roadworks altering accessibility, many businesses teetered on the brink of collapse. Chavela Dollar Store had to get creative to serve customers blocked from entering the store by taking orders over the phone and passing shopping bags across literal trenches in the street.
Lázaro knows without Chavela and the ups and downs of entrepreneurship that came with it, he would have been frustrated by a typical job. Nowadays, his business vision is more extensive than just standing behind the register. Big things are coming for Chavela, including leveraging digital marketing, going online, and even developing a proprietary product line. Lázaro also hopes to help other budding entrepreneurs on their journeys by sharing his expertise and the resources that have bolstered Chavela.
Miami-Dade resources Scale Up D5 and the Mom and Pop Grant, both sponsored by Commissioner Eileen Higgins’ Elevate District 5 small business initiative, have helped them realize the dream born in Cuba. The family secured funding to purchase their first POS technology and upgrade their system. Through STRIVE305 and Prospera, they learned how to write a business plan, prepare and present their business for loan applications, and map out their next steps. Beyond personal gains, the Montalvo family has willingly extended their accrued wisdom, providing a lifeline to fellow small businesses navigating similar waters.
Chavela Dollar Store's story isn't just about the Montalvo family; it's a narrative that resonates with countless small businesses within the Miami-Dade community. Often, the invaluable resources they found go untapped due to a need for more awareness, especially within the Hispanic community. However, with Chavela's success story, there's hope that more entrepreneurs will step forward, armed with the knowledge and support needed to transform their dreams into flourishing businesses.
As for the neighborhood doubters and skeptics, 17 years later, it's safe to say that Chavela Dollar Store is here to stay.
You can learn more about Chavela Dollar Store here:
Small business resources mentioned:
Written by Emily De Armas
Photo taken by Gregory Clark