Gillian Fitzgerald | Staff Writer
“I always wanted to be a chef.”
Shelbin Santos, originally from Cusco, Peru, began her life in Pittsburgh working in the corporate business world — but she never saw herself spending life behind a computer. It didn’t give her the thrill she gets from her true passion: cooking. She wanted more.
Santos immigrated to the United States not knowing English and with only a little money to her name. And in 2007, she followed her dream by opening her own restaurant, Chicken Latino.
“My goal was always to do something that I truly love and that I’d be happy doing because that was going to be for the rest of my life,” Santos said.
Chicken Latino was the very first restaurant to open in Pittsburgh serving authentic Peruvian food, and is currently located at 2100 Broadway Ave. in Beechview along the T route south of the city. Santos was inspired by the lack of Peruvian food in the city and aims to share her culture through her food and her language.
Santos began cooking when she was very young and remembers always wanting to help in the kitchen. Her love for cooking connects her with the love she has for her family, and also to the fresh ingredients that were always homegrown in Peru. She tries to reflect that in her restaurant in Pittsburgh.
On her website, Santos talks about giving each of her customers a taste of the Peruvian experience, which to her means the home cooking she was taught by her mom and grandmother. However, it also means the atmosphere of her restaurant.
“Everything in the restaurant — the decor, the ambience, the music — will make you feel like you’re in Peru,” Santos said. “And if you want to go the whole way, you can order in Spanish and practice your language.”
This experience is something she hopes all her customers are able to enjoy, especially the growing Latino population in Pittsburgh.
When she first moved here, Santos rarely came across people who spoke Spanish. But now, the increasing Latino community in the city has created opportunities for her to get to know so many families who have moved here for work and opportunities. She loves meeting other people who come to Pittsburgh from South and Central America, especially when they are able to enjoy her food.
However, Santos also faces the challenges that come along with being the owner of a small business in the city, especially in a pandemic when Chicken Latino moved locations.
Back in June last year, Santos moved her restaurant from the Strip District to her current Beechview location. It was difficult to do when no moving companies were doing business, and she had to lay off most of her staff because she couldn’t afford to keep them during the pandemic when restaurants had to rely on takeout only to make money.
“It was the most stressful time in my life — from March when the pandemic started until June,” Santos said. “Thank God we’re getting back to normalcy now slowly … I brought back half of my team. Business is not as strong as we’d like it, but we’re hanging in there.”
In this new world where everyone’s learned to live with the pandemic, restaurants and businesses have been forced to find a new normal as well. After completing their move, Chicken Latino had to learn to adapt with new technology and no touch payments, focusing the restaurant on DoorDash delivery, and they had to establish a new customer base in a brand-new neighborhood.
“We had to relearn the layout of the business and just be open minded on the new ways how to get the food to our customers,” Santos said.
While dealing with all of these challenges, the stress of payments and loans was also a heavy burden. Cooking all day and being up all night filling out applications, Santos had to juggle the complex workings of government loans — most of which wouldn’t reward anything in the end.
After struggling to find a source of help, Santos went to the Urban Redevelopment Authority in July and received aid from the organization: a loan that helped her with moving expenses, permits, new furniture and other activities. The temporary cash flow has helped Chicken Latino slowly recuperate, which Santos is thankful for, as she knows other businesses didn’t receive help and had to close.
“It was a nightmare going through those applications, and after all that work they would tell you they ran out of funds, that they don’t have any more money,” Santos said. “Things are not great but at least I’m open, and I’m just blessed that I still have a business running because so many of my friends closed their businesses.”
Despite the challenges, Santos’ hard work, adaptability and positive attitude continues to pay off, and she is looking forward to the future at their new location. She has begun creating new customer relationships with surrounding residential neighbors and also sees old faces of customers who have followed Chicken Latino — and their famous Peruvian marinated chicken, Pollo a la Brasa — to their new location.
And not only is Santos there for her customers, she has also been working with organizations in the area during the pandemic.
“We work with organizations like Casa San Jose to provide lunches and affordable meals so we can distribute to hungry people as well,” she said.
Casa San Jose is a nonprofit resource center for Latino immigrants in the Pittsburgh community, and Chicken Latino is proud to help out the Latino community during this tough year.
Santos has impacted the community around her just as much as it has impacted her. As an immigrant, she followed her dream and hasn’t looked back since because she loves what she does, even when there are hard times like the pandemic.
She didn’t ever want to live wondering “what if?,” so Santos gave her business everything she had and worked extremely hard to get where she is today.
“If you’re an immigrant, when you have a dream, you just have to push hard for it,” Santos said. “I’m living proof that the American Dream works … If you really put your love and your passion into whatever business you want to do, it works. You just have to put a lot of work and a lot of effort to make it work, and at least I know that I’m never going to live with regrets, because the worst thing that a person can have is ‘what if.’”
Not only has she given Pittsburgh a taste of the Peruvian experience, but she also successfully and continuously lives out her dream every single day — and encourages every person and immigrant to do the same.
“Don’t ever be afraid,” Santos said. “The worst thing that could happen is that it doesn’t work and then you start over again with something else.”