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Zunilda Ayala has never owned or run a restaurant before, but last week she became the latest immigrant to the United States to open an ethnic eatery in the Ellsworth area.
In and around Ellsworth — a city where less than 2 percent of people were born in another country, compared with more than 13 percent nationwide — something of a cluster of immigrant-owned restaurants has opened in recent years, offering food from Greece, Mexico, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
Ayala studied the hospitality business in her native Honduras before she moved to the United States in 2011. But when she moved to Maine full time from Georgia last winter, she could not find a job. A resident of Southwest Harbor, she tried applying at area chain restaurants and The Jackson Laboratory, but could not get hired.
“Thirty applications. Nothing,” Ayala said Thursday, sitting at a table in the dining room of her Mexican restaurant Mi Sombrero on Downeast Highway, also U.S. Route 1, in Ellsworth. “Everybody said ‘No, you need more English.’ My big problem is my English.”
Ayala, 32, has been taking English language classes through the adult education program at Mount Desert Island High School, but her proficiency in English has lagged behind her need to find work so she can support her two children, she said. A friend suggested she open a restaurant, and after she inquired about a space formerly occupied by a Thai restaurant, the building owner also offered encouragement.
“I like Mexican food,” Ayala said, adding that a friend of hers from Jalisco, Mexico, signed on to cook and that her niece also is lending a hand.
“It’s my first [restaurant],” she said with a smile. “It’s crazy.”
Ayala said she had traveled to Maine seasonally for several years to work for Garbo Lobster in Hancock, before deciding she wanted to live here year-round. She said she plans for Mi Sombrero to be open 12 months a year.
“I love Maine,” she said.
Ayala said she opened the restaurant last week and hopes to get her liquor license in the coming weeks. She said she is looking to hire more employees, too — two more for her wait staff and two more for the kitchen.
Mi Sombrero offers traditional Mexican food and makes changes to its menu every three days, she said. It is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and, though it does not yet have an online presence, can be reached by calling 207-412-2188.
Since 2014, several other ethnic restaurants have been opened by immigrants in the Ellsworth area.
Five years ago, after years of selling food from a truck, Mexico native Romana Vazquez and her family opened Vazquez Mexican Takeout on Main Street in Milbridge. A year later, Sanjeeva Abeyasekera, 33, who is from Sri Lanka, and his wife, Menemsha Abeyasekera, opened Serendib in downtown Ellsworth.
Greece native Menelaos Kaminaris and his wife Stacy Roguski opened Manny’s Greek Grill, which specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, at the Mill Mall in Ellsworth in 2017. Shane Griffiths and Shane Peart, both from Jamaica, opened Taste Jamaica on High Street in 2016 — the same year Peter Valencia and Teresa Jungo opened Downeast Mexican Takeout in Gouldsboro, the Ellsworth American weekly newspaper has reported.
Last year, Bangkok, Thailand natives Charlie and Vee Napapornpipat opened Siam Sky in Blue Hill. And just this spring, Nepal native Diwas Thapa opened Royal Indian in Bar Harbor, according to the Mount Desert Islander.
On the other hand, some ethnic eateries in Ellsworth also have closed recently. Taste Jamaica failed to reopen for the season this spring after the eatery’s landlord sold the Route 3 property, according to a post on its Facebook page. Bangkok Thai, owned and run by Pronsavanh “Alicia” Soutthivong at various locations in Ellsworth since 1987, went out of business two years ago.
Its final location, for nearly a decade, was where Mi Sombrero just opened at 78 Downeast Highway.