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'The Hispanic Heroes of South Bethlehem:' Chamber gala kicks off National Hispanic Heritage Month

EL Jefe's.jpg
John Schall
El Jefe's Taqueria of Bethlehem will receive a Milestone Award at the Greater Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Sept. 15.

  • Albert Nieves and Victoria Montero are among the honorees at the Greater Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala
  • The soiree will take place at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept 15.
  • Part of the night's proceeds benefit the Fé Foundation

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Sunny days are ahead for a longtime shop owner.

Albert Nieves is looking forward to retirement and spending time with family in Florida — even if that means saying goodbye to his longtime customers and friends.

Nieves, 55, is selling his mixed-use lot at 742-744 E. Fourth St.

The lot includes the family-owned store, Nieves Spanish American Grocery, that his late mother, Altagracia "Titi" Nieves purchased in 1979.

"My heart and soul will always be in South Bethlehem," he said. "I love it here and feel blessed to be part of this booming city."

Nieves will receive the Legacy Award at the Greater Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala held at ArtsQuest's SteelStacks on Friday, Sept. 15.

Also receiving awards that night: Victoria Montero and El Jefe's Taqueria.

Montero, a recipient of the Community Partner award, works at St. Luke’s University Health Network as the manager of health equity initiatives.

She served as interim executive director at the Hispanic Center of Lehigh Valley in South Bethlehem for five years until August.

Montero was a crucial part of helping the center develop its health programs at the Fowler Community Wellness Center, along with providing residents with COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic.

"With all three honorees, each one of them in their own way has contributed to the well-being of the community, superficially on the south side of Bethlehem, with food, supplies and services," said AJ Suero, chair of the Greater Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"All three of them have a heart for the community. Their impact was felt in a profound way, especially during the pandemic where they went above and beyond to serve the needs of the community, and they continue to do so."

Roots on the Southside

Nieves, an alum of Freedom High, took charge of the grocery store in 1993 after Altagracia passed at age 53.

"My Mother Altagracia is my inspiration and my heart. Without her, I could never have been the person I am today," Nieves said. "She taught me how to be a responsible young man, and she knew I had ambition for this trade."

His father, Eladio, died when Nieves was five, leaving Altagracia, who was from Utuado, Puerto Rico, to care for him and his four brothers.

The family lived on Morton Street in a house they still own.

The boys got involved in local youth initiatives like the Bethlehem Boys Club (now called the Boys and Girls Club) where Nieves ran its shop and was named "Boy of the Year" multiple times.

"I used to go to a pharmacy on the corner of Morton Street and buy ice cream for five cents and watch the flames come out of the blast furnaces," he recalled. "I was here when the steel industry was here and when the steel industry left."

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Albert Nieves
Altagracia "Tita" Nieves bought Nieves Grocery in 1979.

At 10, he started working at a market (then known as Martinez Grocery) completing light tasks like sweeping and mopping the floors.

"My mom was working at [the restaurant] La Favorita and the owner, Mr. Martinez, planned to sell the market. He saw how hard I worked and he asked me if my mother wanted to purchase the store, so she did," Nieves recalls. "Little did I know I was going to surpass that dream and not only work in a store but own my very own."

The market is a haven for Spanish-speaking shoppers living on the South side, or as Nieves calls "the international corridor."

As it did some 40 years ago, Nieves Grocery carries staples like milk, bread and eggs — but is enhanced with the scents and textures of fruits and vegetables such as plantanos, sopadillas, plus bistec and cebollas on the griddle.

In 2000, Nieves purchased the building next door where he serves Latin American dishes and quick eats like the popular Cuban sandwich.

"We offer all kinds of Hispanic and American foods such as hot dogs, coffee, steak sandwiches, and authentic Puerto Rican food," Nieves said.

He's most proud of his charitable efforts.

"Over the years our business has been involved with different kinds of donations and we have been able to help a lot of people in the community," Nieves said. "I have had the opportunity to play Santa Claus at Christmas time, donate food to shelters at Thanksgiving, sponsor little league team and basketball teams and help individuals to continue and succeed in both their education and sports. We have also assisted lots of homeless people around the neighborhood."

While developers continue to seek out the city, Nieves isn't sure what will happen to the market.

"I hate to see it close down. I hope someone buys it and continues my legacy here. I don't know about that happening," he said.

"A lot of people say I'm the icon there and people come because I'm there, and I gave good service to customers over the years. They don't know if anyone else can survive."

Latino-owned businesses, sharing family recipes

Albert Nieves
Albert Nieves is the owner of Nieves Hispanic American Grocery in Bethlehem.

Another prominent business owner, John Schall, of El Jefe's Taqueria, will accept the Milestone Award at the gala.

"One thing that interested us was that 20% of El Jefe's Taqueria [stakeholders] are Latino," Suero said. "We were also impressed with their out-of-the-box thinking during COVID and willingness to stay open during the pandemic for essential workers and students."

Schall, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, opened the second location of his Mexican-inspired eatery in 2018 after his friend, former Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, connected him to Peron Development.

Callahan, director of development at the company, told him about the retail space available at Five 10 Flats on E. Third St.

It turned out to be a successful partnership.

"In 2020, Peron agreed to invest in my company, and between August 2020 and 2022, we opened seven more restaurants, including two more in Pennsylvania," Schall said.

With the expansion came opportunities for El Jefe's employees — many of whom are Latino — to move up the ranks.

A majority of his staff had started off as hourly employees according to Schall, who previously owned another restaurant in Cambridge.

"The executive chef, Fidencio Saavedra at El Jefe's is Mexican-American and has been with me for 17 years," Schall said.

Now in charge of creating a menu for the eight chains, Saavedra's family recipes are a vital part of what makes the food chain successful.

"Jon Eller is from Brazil and got his start as a dishwasher. I have known him since he was 17. He's now the operations director and owns a significant part of the company," Schall said.

"And twin brothers, from the Dominican Republic Fernando and Cesario Sanchez, have worked with me since 1997 and have moved up to managerial roles."

Schall tends to treat his staff like family and that means being an advocate for their rights.

El Jefe was paying employees $12 an hour (plus tips) long before Pennsylvania's minimum wage changed from $7.25.

“It’s just part of being a decent human being. It’s also a crucial part of a successful business model,” he told LehighValleyNews.com in a previous report. "There are restaurants now that aren’t open because they say they can’t find staff. I haven’t closed for an hour because I can’t find staff. It’s absolutely the case that paying a living wage is a crucial part of the success of El Jefe’s.”

It isn't the only lesson he's learned from staff, notably those who have emigrated to the U.S.

"My staff are incredibly committed and work incredibly hard. They not only provide for themselves here in the States but also take care of family in the countries where they came from. They are an incredibly hardworking loyal and dedicated group of people," Schall said.

Somos familia

The Hispanic Chamber's gala kicks off at 6 p.m. on Friday with a cocktail hour, followed by dinner and plenty of dancing.

This year's soiree coincides with the first day of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15.

It will be a celebration of five Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

"Many people might wonder why is it that we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month in September, not knowing that those five countries celebrate their independence day on September 15," Suero said. "It's a kick-off for a month-long celebration where several countries, including Mexico and others, celebrate their independence."

On tap are foods from the region such as pupusas and baleadas, plus live music from Lehigh Valley Latin Urban Orquestra and DJ Lazer of La Mega Allentown.

The Hispanic Chamber was founded in 2003 by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

To join, members must first register with the chamber.

"What I find interesting is that we have so many non-Latinos that attend the gala and we share a slogan, 'somos familia', or we are family," Suero said.

"Yes, there are commonalities among Latinos — we're very much family-oriented, but we're open to sharing our culture, food and our experiences with others because we want others to understand us better."

Gala tickets cost $175. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Fé Foundation, a two-part summer program with an academic session and an internship program for high school students.