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How one chef serves up his heritage after almost losing his beloved business

Michael Diaz opened his restaurant months before the pandemic. Amid fears of losing it all, he started selling food on the road and continues to do so today.

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Starting a business is hard. Watching it come to life and nearly vanish is harder - but Michael Diaz refused to let that become his new reality.

He, instead, took business on the road.

Diaz has been able to build his restaurant up thanks to a lot of perseverance, hard work, and sacrifice. 

In 2015, Diaz, who had just torn his meniscus, brought a slice of Puerto Rico to Georgia, initially selling food from his living room.

“I sold all my furniture, put up two tables and sold food every Saturday and Sunday," he said in Spanish. 11Alive has translated his quotes for this story.

That dream was cut short when the health department took note of what was going on.

"The health department told me it was illegal to sell food from my house," he said, "but they didn’t tell me I couldn’t sell food in the streets!”

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So he cooked up a plan B, taking that dream on the road. He started serving up some of his heritage, catering to whoever would buy food from his car trunk.

11Alive's Paola Suro rode with him as he served the community everything from arroz con gandules or rice and pigeon peas, habichuelas or beans, and pernil which is slow-roasted pork.

He did not let his injured knee stop his drive.

Diaz and his wife opened Mi Casita Boricua, or My Puerto Rican House July 13, 2019, taking their dream from the road, into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“It was phenomenal," Diaz said. "The restaurant was packed and there was a long line outside. Then nine months later was the lockdown: the pandemic.” 

From 18 employees, they went down to six, to then three, including him and his wife. They started offering new deals that helped keep them in business, and he met Rafet Morales.

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"When they opened, I felt home. That day I fell in love," Morales said. "As soon as the food touched my mouth, I calmed down. I said, 'This is it. I have to buy this restaurant.'” 

Morales, who is also Puerto Rican, helped cook up Diaz’s plan C.

The restaurant still sits in the same spot on Pleasant Hill Road, but the sign has switched from Mi Casita Boricua to Mi Rincón Boricua, or My Puerto Rican Corner.

This month, they’ve worked together to offer food both in the restaurant and on the road.

“I believe in what’s being built," Morales said. "The drive to own it and raise it back up - to continue his dream and push it 10 steps forward."

Diaz says he is excited for what's to come. He says that it's thanks to his Puerto Rican, persevering background, that he's able to celebrate how far his restaurant has come, after fearing he could lose it all.

"Being a hard-working, Puerto Rican man runs in my blood," he said. "I’m really proud to be representing my island here. Very proud.” 

You can find this Puerto Rican 'corner' on 550 Pleasant Hill Road in Lilburn.

Watch other stories like this one in 11Alive's Hispanic Heritage Month special in the video player below.

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