On a mission to bring Puerto Rican food to Philadelphians.
Por Arianna Hermosillo
Filadelfia.- Loco Lucho’s Latino Kitchen might be a newcomer to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, but owners Rafi Nieto and Luis Liceaga aren’t food novices.
What started as a small catering business about five years ago for mostly tailgating Philadelphia Eagles fans, is now in its first permanent location in the market, the city’s hub for everything food.
Roots in the Kitchen
Nieto’s full first name is Rafael, but he goes by Rafi. His other nickname is hiding in the Loco Lucho name. “Luis is Lucho and I’m the loco,” Nieto says.
Nieto is from Puerto Rico, but has been in Philadelphia since 2013. He inherited a family passion for food from both sides of his family and like most of us claims that his mother and grandmother are the best cooks. His uncles also get his culinary nod. None of them, however, are professionals, including Rafi. “I’ve loved to cook since I can remember and doing it every day now, it’s a blessing,” Nieto says.
Opportunity at Reading Terminal Market
It’s a love of cooking that brought Nieto and Liceaga to the Reading Terminal Market, a historic location that has been open since 1893. “You come to Philly, it’s definitely a place that you have to go,” Nieto says. And theirs is the first Latino-owned business to call it home in all those years.
Motivated by the opportunity to bring Latino cuisine to the market and settle into a fixed location — Nieto still has an event planning business back home that keeps him traveling — Nieto and team competed with more than 50 other contenders to win selection by the market’s board. Nieto says the market didn’t have anything like the mix of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican food that he and his team specialize in. It also helped their case that the board “knew they wanted something Latino because the Latino market is growing so fast,” Nieto says. Loco Lucho’s Latino Kitchen opened for business at the market on July 10, 2018.
How would the location at the market differ from the catering business? For Nieto, it’s actually about consistency. He says that unlike other caterers, Loco Lucho’s makes everything fresh and to order, regardless of the item. “[If] they want carne frita, if they want rice and beans every day, we’ll do it every day. That’s the way we run our business.”
Ramp up for Launch
Nieto and the team knew that they had space a year and a half before they could move in. There was waiting for the previous tenants to move out and construction to tailor the stand for their needs. However, Nieto tried to stay focused and take the time to keep planning toward their goal. “If something is not going the way that you want it, you should be able to foresee it so you can change and adapt and do whatever is necessary for your goal. That, in this case, was to open our store,” Nieto says.
The business started slowly with a soft opening. They wanted the team to learn their rhythm and perfect their systems to avoid under-delivering. The Loco Lucho team is small, but Nieto’s focus is to build up their morale and customer service. “I think when you’re happy when you like what you do, the food will taste better,” he adds.
On the Horizon
Nieto says that a year from now, he hopes that they’ve established themselves in the market so they can work on opening another location. He wants to “see how we can expand ourselves and start bringing the Latino kitchen somewhere outside the Reading Terminal.” Nieto says Liceaga is at the market every day and he tries to be better about time off, so in addition to expansion, some time away from the market is in the works.