My first introduction to Manny’s Universal Cafe is this: Ashley Harper is sitting on a bar stool, chatting with Margarita Delgado, who is preparing her salad. She’s been coming here for three years and once Margarita comes to the bar with salad in hand--in all its greens, chicken, strawberries and homemade dressing glory--it’s pretty clear what keeps her coming back. “Here you go,” says Margarita. “Just the way you like it.”
Ashley’s affection for Margarita is apparent. “She’s an angel incarnate,” Ashley says. “There are times when I come in and I tell her what’s wrong with me, and she gives me a special smoothie for it. I had her beet-carrot-apple-celery juice right before my GREs, and it gave me the energy I needed. Everything she makes, she makes with love.” Margarita’s son Manuel, the eponymous Manny, looks on. It’s an interaction that he’s familiar with, and one that has been repeated with many other regulars since he opened the restaurant in 2010.
When Manny opened the doors to the cafe four years ago, in the bottom level of his home in the Southside development on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, his initial vision was to sell coffee and pastries. But not just any coffee: he was looking for the rich coffee like he would drink in El Salvador. After some searching, he found a local roaster that met his high standards. He sold delicious pastries. Business was good, but not stellar. People were asking for hot food, so he started to make breakfast sandwiches. Around that time, Margarita decided to retire from her job at an institutional food service company in New York, so she moved to Greensboro to be with her son, with her mother Isabel in tow. She started cooking both the traditional Salvadoran food that she had grown up with – pupusas, tamales, and empanadas – and more typically “American” food – granola, spaghetti, and sandwiches – that she had learned to make since coming to the U.S. in 1981. Manny turned their garage into a restaurant-grade kitchen. He finished the patio, started a container garden, and added seating. And people began coming in. In many ways, Manny’s Universal Cafe is a model of a family-run business, and each family member expresses gratitude for each others’ strengths. Manny provides the business drive and keeps things focused. He also enjoys chatting with customers. Isabel plays a strong supporting role, helping with cleaning, cooking, and tending the garden. And Margarita, while also building connections with customers and the community, cooks.
Margarita has been cooking her whole life. Since her mother didn’t love to cook, Margarita spent hours in her grandmother’s kitchen in San Salvador, preparing tortillas the old-fashioned, enormously time-consuming way: boiling the corn with lime, bringing it to the mill for grinding, making the dough, and hand-shaping them to be cooked over an open wood stove.
Her entrepreneurship began when she was 12. She would borrow $1 from her grandmother to buy ingredients for empanadas – small hand pies stuffed with chicken, beef, or vegetables – that she would then sell for $3. After paying her grandmother back, she would enjoy her $2 profit until she needed to ask her grandmother for more capital. She still makes empanadas the same way today for diners at Manny’s Universal Cafe.
And now a word about the food: everything is fresh and delicious. The pupusas (tortilla dough stuffed with a variety of combinations of beans, cheese, and pork, grilled until crispy) crunch in just the right way, and the curtido (spicy vinegary slaw that traditionally accompanies pupusas) melds the flavors beautifully. The salads come with ingredients picked fresh out of the patio or out of the community garden. The huevos rancheros have just the right amount of spice. The banana leaf-wrapped tamales speak of years of traditional preparation. The coffee is rich. The brownies and the cheesecake are homemade and a rather decadent alternative (or addition) to the fruit juices and smoothies.
Margarita has passed on many things besides an appreciation of food to Manny and his children. She passed down a sense of entrepreneurship – starting from her days as a 12-year-old empanada magnate and continuing as she increased sales at the many cafeterias that she managed. Manny has expanded the business from coffee to dinners. Now, the cafe has a small grocery section. They also do catering and special events, as well as selling at City Market on Thursdays.
She passed down a passion for education. When he was growing up, Manny watched her go to school while working full-time and raising a family. The goal of a biology degree from North Carolina A&T originally brought Manny to Greensboro.
She passed down a deep interest in health and nutrition. Margarita grows her own vegetables and herbs in both the patio garden and a community garden down the street. She often makes herbal teas for customers who come in for with minor health complaints, and will prepare special healthy meals for customers who have diabetes or other problems. She sees it as part of her mission to educate people about how to prepare swiss chard or beets to eat more healthily – and she loves it when customers come back from doctor’s visits with good reports thanks to her cooking. Manny is currently getting his master’s degree in health education, and hopes to work in schools teaching nutrition and coaching sports teams.
But perhaps the most important lesson is the one in care. Margarita says, “I believe that everyone should be treated specially and individually,” and Manny sees this every day. He says, “She’s a good listener.” Over the years, they have developed a loyal customer base: people who come in for smoothies or pupusas or tamales or brownies, but also for the attention and personal connection that they get here.
It takes capital and a good business plan to open a restaurant. But it takes love to create regular customers and to make a cement patio bloom. Love, care, and family.