As you stroll through the Findlay Market area, you can experience a variety of restaurants with cuisines from all over the world. There are Italian, Vietnamese, French, and plenty more cuisines represented. But up until early June, something was missing.
Helen Ortega, owner of Chacabanas, realized the missing piece—the Latin flavors of the Carribean.
Growing up with her grandparents in the Dominican Republic, Ortega was always surrounded by cooking. “My grandmother always was cooking and she had a small business, like a restaurant, so I grew up around food and the art of the Dominican cuisine,” she says. “From there I grew up to learn to cook just by watching what she used to do all the time.”
Between her Dominican grandparents and Cuban stepmother, Ortega has influences of both food cultures that find their way into her culinary style.
At the age of 14, Ortega came to the United States from the Dominican Republic with her father. After attending culinary school in New York at the International Culinary Center, formerly known as the French Culinary Institute, she explored the food scene of New York working with different celebrity chefs like Angelo Sosa and Bill Telepan.
Ortega eventually took a hiatus from the food industry to raise her family in New Jersey. At the time, she and her husband owned a logistics company. A career opportunity arose for them in Blue Ash in 2020, and they have remained in Cincinnati ever since.
Despite all of these life changes, Ortega still carried her lifelong dream of opening her own restaurant. “I always had a dream of opening a restaurant, I just didn’t know it was going to happen here just because the opportunities in New York are very limited since there’s so many restaurants and so much competition,” she says. “Over here, it seems like everybody helps each other more into following what you want to do and opening a restaurant or whatever dreams you have.”
When Ortega decided to make her dream a reality, she began researching different retail spaces for a restaurant. In this research, she stumbled upon Findlay Launch.
Findlay Launch is a program that helps aspiring restaurant owners, particularly women and minorities, get their businesses off the ground. According to their website, “This residency-based accelerator gives independent food entrepreneurs a real world experience in fully built and equipped storefronts in a thriving food district.”
“They’re always there when you need them,” Ortega says. “They always try to work with you and whatever you need, so I recommend the program for anyone, not only for a restaurant, but anything else that you want to pursue within the market.”
Ortega went through the application process last year in the hopes of landing one of the highly sought-after positions. After proposing business plans and interviews, Ortega had finally secured a spot for Chacabanas on 1809 Elm St.
After many classes and preparations with Findlay Launch, Chacabanas’s grand opening was on June 2, 2023, creating a journey from Cincinnati to Cuba and the Dominican Republic with Ortega’s food.
The restaurant gets its name from the iconic Dominican shirts called “chacabanas”. They are a lightweight version of a traditional military shirt, with plenty of pockets that can hold many cigars. The shirts are also incredibly popular in Cuba. As a staple in both of the countries that Chacabanas represents, what could be a better name for a restaurant that serves Cubano sandwiches and croquetas?
Now that Ortega has been able to make her dreams come true, she hopes to support others as well. “Behind this dream, there’s always something bigger for me,” she says. “It’s not about the restaurant itself, but it’s about me helping kids in my country or other countries that are less fortunate.”
By honoring her heritage with her restaurant, Ortega seeks to aid those who are in need in her home country. “Every time I go to the Dominican Republic, I see these kids and it just breaks my heart that we have so much here and there’s so little that we do for others,” she says. “We always have to give back to those who need it the most and since the kids are our future, if we build nothing on those kids, we’re not going to get a good future for whoever’s coming next.”
In the future, Ortega hopes to expand on what Findlay Launch has made possible for her. She hopes to open a larger restaurant with features like a patio, a fountain, lots of flowers, and a stage for live music and dancing. “I want to make it an experience like we’re in Cuba or the Dominican Republic without having to travel outside the country,” she says.
Chacabanas, 1809 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 717-2172