Innovation award for local entrepreneurs

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They are three young entrepreneurs who are proud to be from El Paso and share a deep appreciation for food.

Rudy Valdes, 36, and Octavio Gomez and Nick Salgado, both 37, are the chief bottle washers at Pan y Agua LLC, a growing local business that is one of four being honored March 21 at the inaugural El Paso Innovation Awards, sponsored by The Hub of Human Innovation.

The Hub is a local nonprofit that helps set up support mechanisms for people with ideas for starting up businesses. The breakfast is the first-ever event the organization has put on to honor local businesses.

“I had pitched the idea last fall to our board of directors,” said Joe Wardy, the former mayor and current Hub CEO and president. “We want to recognize local entrepreneurs and innovators as role models.”

A Hub committee of five made the final selections, and Pan y Agua is being honored for Innovation in Restaurant and Design. Others will be honored for Innovation in Technical Training and Education, and for Innovation in Downtown Redevelopment.

Wardy said Pan y Agua was chosen because it’s brought “spice and excitement” to the local restaurant scene, adding that it’s good to see homegrown entrepreneurs bring new, fresh concepts to El Paso.

“We need business role models and we need to feature them,” he added. “All the winners have said they’re extremely flattered, but none of them were out seeking the recognition. But we just think it’s due.”

Gomez, Valdes and Salgado own and operate successful local restaurants including Crave, and Montecillo’s Café Malolam, Stonewood Modern American Grill and Hillside Coffee & Donut Co.

Throw in Downtown apartments, a retail and entertainment center, and DownTI:ME, a three-story office/retail complex, and you get an idea of their commitment to El Paso.

“The opportunity and potential we have here,” is how Gomez explained Pan y Agua’s decision to focus on El Paso.

“Knowing that we’re sitting on a powder keg of excitement, and we know that El Paso is going to explode,” was how Valdes put it. “We’re sitting here waiting for it.”

Echoed Salgado, “Being in the El Paso community, and the support we’re getting from friends and family – that makes it all worthwhile.”

So these three entrepreneurs are amped about their community – there’s nothing about them that says stodgy-businessmen-in-suits, either.

Gomez has a degree in economics and a local bar called 1914 Lounge, Valdes was a chef in Arizona, and Salgado was an ad salesman.

He said they all turned out to have the same goals in life, as well as the same likes and dislikes.

“I’d worked in restaurants and bars, so I had that experience,” he added. “And I had learned marketing.”

The restaurant business is iffy, especially with the competition of chain restaurants. But Valdes had a simple outlook on any potential risks.

“Eating is such a universal thing, something all of us do,” he said. “When you take something a whole lot of people do and make it fun, and satisfy people in both the physical and social scene, that brings joy to me.”

The social aspect of dining out was something they wanted to emphasize.

“We wanted to create something for people that is more than ‘just food,’” Gomez added, while Salgado admitted being impressed by the experiences and celebrations customers have had in the trio’s restaurants.

All three love El Paso, all three have family and friends here, all three grew up here, and all three plan to stay.

Twenty-five years from now, they plan to be doing the exact same things they’re doing now, but “more,” and with a collective eight children, they have several future dishwashers on the horizon.

The self-confessed food lovers happily describe themselves as acting like 12-year-olds, “youngsters” surprised and honored by the recognition planned at the Hub event.

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