Victor Calixto recalls driving down streets in the South Bronx with his father noticing a vacant building on the corner of East 134th Street and Lincoln Avenue, within blocks of where several new residential high-rises were sprouting.
That corner soon became home to Maisonetta, a Mexican and French fusion restaurant that opened in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years later, the 26-year-old owner, who invested his own money into the business, strives to keep the establishment open and hopes for the business to become a Port Morris staple.
SoBro, an organization addressing all aspects of community development in the South Bronx, reported that 40% of Bronx businesses shut down, at least temporarily, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the NYC Comptroller’s Office found 87% of minority owned business unable to financially support their businesses, despite receiving funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. At the time of the study, the office found that more than 30% of the businesses projected being unable to pay rent in the next three months., according to the NYC Comptroller’s Office.
As Calixto opened Maisonetta’s doors on a recent Friday afternoon, frequent customer Ray Byres walked in and paused, taking in the natural sunlight as it filled every inch of the restaurant. Music from Puerto Rican singer Ozuna played faintly in the background.
After ordering the French toast, eggs and King Salmon tacos, Byres said that the customer service, food and welcoming environment have him returning regularly.
“You look inside, and you just see the atmosphere, it feels friendly, it feels inviting,” Byres said. “It’s refreshing to sit down at the bar and relax and have a nice lunch.”
Growing up on 138th Street and Brook Ave in the South Bronx, Calixto said the area has shifted from an industrial and warehouse hotspot to a developing residential space. With more than 20 developmental projects and more than 5,000 residential apartments to appear in Mott Haven over the next few years, Calixto said it was a perfect opportunity to join in this movement.
“We thought we might as well give it a shot,” Calixto said.
Opening in September 2020, Calixto said there were concerns about navigating a business during the pandemic. However, with the money and resources invested in the establishment, he decided to gamble on opening the business, despite the challenging time.
Within months, as COVID-19 cases were on the rise, Calixto said sales were slowing down, which led to a temporary closure of Maisonetta. Calixto said his new business did not qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program Loan, intended to incentivize small businesses to keep workers on the payroll and to rehire laid-off workers that lost wages due to COVID-19 disruptions.
“There was a part of me that was very realistically about the numbers and trying to see if they make sense, but there’s also a very optimistic part of me,” Calixto said. “I think that every business owner thinks like that – where you definitely don’t want to give up, there’s always that fighting spirit.”
Since the age of 6, his time would be invested in the South Bronx, focusing on the family-owned woodworking business after his family moved from Mexico to New York. With no previous restaurant experience, nearly two decades later, Calixto’s establishment sits blocks away from where he grew up.
“I thought my whole life would be to work with my dad and the woodwork shop,” he said. “I never thought that myself, or like me along with my family, that we would have a business in this area. It definitely is a humbling experience.”
From seeing crowds of people laugh while savoring their dinners to his employees enjoying their work, Calixto said it is a “heartwarming feeling.” Creating an open and friendly environment has always been a priority since the beginning.
“All I wanted was a space for everyone, whether it’s an office worker, construction worker or business professional, to come by,” he said.
The fusion of French and Mexican food, Calixto said, sparks the interest of many customers. As an example, the Magret de Pato, a traditional French dish of duck, is combined with mole poblano, a traditional Mexican sauce. Customers have been very open to trying these combinations of tastes and cultures, Calixto said. But they can also choose a traditional meal from either culture.
“I want to become a staple of the neighborhood,” Calixto said. “I definitely want to keep the restaurant around for years and years. This is the point where the Bronx completely changes. For me, it makes me very happy to be part of it.”