CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A North Carolina Latin restaurant owner is mixing her experience in the kitchen and her degree in social work to give back to her community.

What You Need To Know

  • Miriam Espaillat co-owns Raydal Hospitality Group which runs Sabor Latin Street Grill and Three Amigo’s Mexican Grill and Cantina in Charlotte

  • Espaillat is using her master’s degree in social work from UNC Charlotte to give back to the immigrant community

  • A 2014 Harvard study found Charlotte ranked last among 50 large U.S. cities in economic mobility

The smell of yuca fries sizzling in hot oil brings Miriam Espaillat back to her childhood in El Salvador.

“It’s the colors, the smells, the hills and the mountains behind it,” Espaillat said. “That’s what it reminds me of.”

Espaillat brings that same taste of home to her customers at Sabor Latin Street Grill in Charlotte. Cooking up Latin cuisine is in Espaillat’s blood. After moving to New York City, she prepared dishes at the restaurant owned by her mother

“For me, she’s my trailblazer,” Espaillat said of her mother. “The one that really opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”

With a growing empire of over a dozen restaurants in the Charlotte area, Espaillat is also using her master’s degree in social work from UNC Charlotte to give back to the immigrant community. She works with several organizations to provide jobs and resources to those lacking access to career opportunities.

Espaillat strives to get to know her employees on a personal level as well.

“You get to know their life, you get to know things they’re going through,” Espaillat said. “And that trust-building is huge.”

Her mission began several years ago, watching on TV as thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border.

“When I saw the news, I was like oh my God, those kids are kids from my country and they’re probably in situations similar to what I was born into,” Espaillat said.

She focused her efforts closer to home, after learning about a Harvard study that found Charlotte ranked last among 50 large U.S. cities in economic mobility.

“It meant that if you were born in poverty, it was going to be really hard to get out of poverty,” Espaillat said.

As she guides people on the right path, she also connects them to mental health, education and other resources.

“Some people do become homeowners,” Espaillat said. “And they’re able to pay for their homes or put their kids in different programs.”

Nelly Aules works as a manager at Espaillat’s other restaurant, Three Amigos Mexican Grill and Cantina.

“I’m a single mom and they gave me [the option] to choose my schedule,” Aules said. “So, I have time for my family and my kids.”

Aules moved from Mexico nearly two decades ago. She didn’t have money to go to college and struggled to develop life goals.

“It was hard because of the language [barrier],” Aules said. “It was hard sometimes because of the culture.”

Aules has worked at Three Amigos for 11 years and is now on the way to becoming a homeowner. She says she’s grateful for Espaillat’s compassionate leadership.

“Right now, I can say I have a future for my kids here,” Aules said. “I can offer my kids a better school.”

Aules’ story gives Espaillat purpose and hope for Charlotte’s immigrant and underserved community.

“Small little steps and little impacts can really change one person’s life,” Espaillat said.

Espaillat also provides internships for some students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and at her alma mater, UNC Charlotte.

She says she has helped about 50 people find careers. Some of those she's helped own shares of her business, Raydal Hospitality Group, and are on the path to becoming franchise owners.