Young Reno entrepreneurs face a daily grind to make a go of it

Young Reno entrepreneurs face a daily grind to make a go of it

Here at the RGJ, we often report on food- and culture-related businesses in the Reno area. In recent months, we’ve written quite often about the closures of well-known bars, restaurants and other iconic establishments.

We wanted to do something different this time.

We’re looking at the future of Reno’s business community: young entrepreneurs hustling ― and in many cases, risking it all ― for a shot at their dreams. In that spirit, we’ve profiled four business owners, between the ages of 20-40, to learn about what it takes to be a young entrepreneur in Reno.

Austin Lugo

Age: 26

Occupation: Founder of Reno arthouse cinema Theater 42, 201 W. Moana Lane

Austin Lugo likes his dreams big, bold and risky.

In January, the 26-year-old Indianapolis native and a group of his friends opened Theater 42, the first new arthouse cinema in Reno in many years. Lugo and his team pooled their life savings to rent an old law office on Moana Lane and transform it into a destination for lovers of indie movies.

Theater 42, which held its grand opening and first film screening Thursday, Jan. 5, had to close just one week later due to permit and licensing issues, owner Austin Lugo told the RGJ. According to the City of Reno, Theater 42 opened illegally.

The law office location and its subsequent quick closure reflected yet another setback after the failure of Lugo’s crowdfunding efforts six months ago to kickstart construction on a $5 million cinema. The idea was to build from the ground up over several years a theater replete with 360-degree cameras to allow global audiences to watch films and interact with other moviegoers via virtual reality headsets.

Fear and trust, Lugo says, are the greatest challenges he faces as a young entrepreneur.

“Just out of college, without a penny to my name, and about $100,000 in debt,” Lugo said, “it has been near impossible to prove my worthiness to individuals, communities, and especially financial institutions.”

“The amount of fear I have every morning thinking about the cinema is nearly overwhelming,” he said. “The idea that at any moment, people could forget about us, we could become irrelevant, or maybe we never even were relevant. That haunts my waking dreams.”

Lugo battles his inner fears of failure by remaining vigilant in his work. He says support from the Reno community bolsters his confidence. Like many entrepreneurs, Lugo’s daily grind involves many meetings, emails, social media and a healthy dose of creativity.

“When I was a kid, I could not fathom how my father spent all day, every day, in meetings,” Lugo said. “I just never understood how sitting in a room talking to people could ever get anything done. I’m a creator. I make things. What could talking ever do?”

“Then I started my first business, and learned that the key to any successful business is focusing on what you are best at, and trusting your team to do the work they are best at. That meant still creating art, but also being aware that you aren’t the only artist out there, and as unfathomable is it may sound, you are not the best at everything.”

Crystal Leon

Age: 37

Occupation: Co-owner of the Radish Hotel, an urban farm in Sparks

Crystal Leon and her husband, Carlos, launched an urban farm in the backyard of their Sparks home roughly five years ago. They started small, supplementing store-bought groceries with produce of their own and using eggs from the three chickens that came with the property. That backyard has since grown into a mini ecosystem that has become the pillar of the Leons’ business. They call it the Radish Hotel.

The Leons sell their produce at local famers markets in spring and summer. But the couple are also part of a new generation of millennial farmers who are helping to chart the course of local food, using tech-savvy marketing skills to maximize consumer access to their goods.

While that part comes fairly easily, old-school regulations and bureaucracy presented challenges to the young couple early on.

“In this region, it feels almost like every zip code has its own requirements; with those requirements is its own set of paperwork,” Crystal Leon said.

These days, the Leons share the plight of many people who work from home: striking a balance between work-life and family life.

The Leons have a daily grind that is part farm, part modern life.

“The goal is always to wake up before the kids so we can get a jump start on tasks. Coffee, breakfast and then one big thing before the kids are awake,” Crystal Leon said. “This might be packaging and labeling 10 pounds of granola or tea or making multiple batches of soap bars.”

The day consists of walking the grounds, checking on the chickens, harvesting vegetables and watering whatever crops aren’t on irrigation. Late afternoon involves invoices, paperwork, inventory tracking and website updates.

“After lunch and in between nap schedules is when we’re baking and making whatever didn’t get taken care of in the wee hours of the morning,” Crystal Leon said. “Carlos and I both keep our own lists and throughout the day we just sort of divide and conquer.”

Melissa Iturriaga

Age: 28

Occupation: Co-owner of Dolce Caffe, 3882 Mayberry Drive

In summer 2022, the Iturriaga family acquired Franz’s Backstube Austrian Bakery at 3882 Mayberry Drive and transformed it into Dolce Caffe, an Italian-style bakery and cafe showcasing Melissa Iturriaga’s baking skills.

Iturriaga appeared in her element during a January visit as she navigated the pastry counter and served customers while helping out with baking in the kitchen. But it wasn’t always so orderly.

“Nothing was smooth,” Iturriaga recalls of the cafe’s opening days. “But that’s part of having a business. Everything is just happening and you have to go with it.”

Now six months in business, Iturriaga finds the challenges are more existential in nature: Should Dolce continue producing the Austrian baked goods that remain on the menu? Or should the cafe fully embrace its Italian identity?

“People are slowly falling in love with our stuff,” Iturriaga said. “It’s slowly getting there.”

Most days, Iturriaga wakes up between 3:15-4:30 a.m. and arrives at the bakery before 5:30 a.m. She starts churning out as many croissants and danishes as she can before the doors open at 7 a.m. Iturriaga typically stays until closing around 4 or 5 p.m. She goes home, goes to sleep and does it all over again the next day.

Iturriaga hopes that in five years she can step back from the operational side of the cafe and focus on managing business, hopefully with a second location.

“I’m learning so much,” Iturriaga said. “I’ll tell people its great but it’s also the hardest thing in the world. I think I’m getting stronger every day.”

Daneal Akalu

Age: 22

Occupation: Co-owner of Toss Your Greens, 1495 E. Prater Way, Sparks

Daneal Akalu immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia at age 11, growing up with a fixation on the American Dream and a passion for healthy food. He briefly worked at Tesla, where he met the future co-owner of Toss Your Greens, Ancil Christopher.

Both men, bonding over a mutual love of food and robotics, launched Toss Your Greens in November 2022. Akalu hopes that someday the restaurant will feature a salad-making robot. For now, he’s focused on attracting as much business as he can.

Licensing and hiring were the two biggest hurdles in starting the restaurant.

“Regulatory compliance, and compliance with the variety of laws and regulations, can be confusing and very hard,” Akalu said.

Cash flow was another difficulty, he found.

“You need more cash than you think,” Akalu said. “Finding and acquiring customers is a significant challenge when starting a business.”

Akalu’s day involves setting strategy and directional goals while juggling various managerial decisions. Though the business is only a few months old, Akalu has discovered how critical all of these organizational skills are.

“Some of the struggles I face right now are time management and balancing perfection [versus] progress,” Akalu said. “It’s really important to me that I leave the world better before I die and make a difference in someone’s eating habits.”

Follow @HaddadEvan for timely, relevant and compelling reporting on food, drinks and city life in Reno.

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