Sandra Almonte, 2022 Outstanding Women in Business recipient
Sandra is the Owner of Don Quijote Restaurant
As a native of the Dominican Republic, Almonte immigrated to New Jersey at the age of 9 in 1981 and later moved in 2000 with her ex-husband and three sons to Manchester, where they opened a Latino restaurant, Don Quijote, when very few existed in New Hampshire.
In just over two decades, Almonte’s business has grown and thrived, in no small part due to her unwavering commitment to providing authentic cuisine, a welcoming atmosphere for her patrons, and a genuine concern for the well-being of her employees and community.
Almonte is chair for the board of directors of NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire to help create affordable rental housing in Manchester, Nashua and surrounding communities. She is also a board member for the Conservation Law Foundation and Manchester Proud, and an advisory council member for the Centro Latino de Hospitalid.
What lessons would you pass down to future female leaders?
Back in 2000, I noticed Manchester was a growing city, very multicultural, but there were no restaurants where Caribbean food would be offered. When we opened, I focused on getting to know the community. Our food is typically Dominican, but as the years went by, we noticed a changing clientele. It wasn’t only Dominicans; it was people from Columbia, Brazil, Guatemala, Salvador, Mexico. So, what I learned was: know your customers, know what they’re looking for. We changed some of the menu to be less Dominican and more inclusive of everybody. So, know your clientele, know what you’re serving and what they like and dislike. Make the business what you want.
Every time I have an opportunity (to stop by customers’ tables), I do it. It’s about relationship building, which is a very big part of not only my business but also some of the community work that I do. I learned some of their struggles, and I feel like, “wow, this is exactly what I went through when I was a little girl.” I resonate so much with my customers.
Any community initiatives you’re excited about?
I am passionate about educating residents — not only writing but also coaching them on financial wellness, because it teaches them to fix their credit, to eventually turn them from just tenants to homeowners.
I’m also into some of the environmental justice issues that we have — like homes with lead. There are so many absentee landlords who live out of town. And then, of course, the high prices.
I also hire people from out of halfway houses who got into trouble or have mental illnesses. I feel that everybody deserves a second chance. They just don’t have any hope. I like to give them the opportunity, a stepping stone, to be social and have responsibilities. My business is a small space that’s very family oriented, and it just makes them feel safe. They mostly come up from other states, so they don’t have any close family here.
I’d love to help build another Latino center, maybe do a fundraiser someday and get a building, so we can have community help not only for the Latinos but for all immigrants. They need resources to know the city and to acclimate to the U.S. I call my restaurant a little community hub, but I’d love to have a hub for all the immigrants that come in with different resources and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.
I know a Colombian gentleman, who was a jeweler in Colombia, and here, he’s cleaning offices. Then we have dentists, lawyers, nurses, RNs back (in their home countries) and they come here to clean toilets. I have a young girl who was a lawyer in the Dominican Republic, and she left everything and is now a waitress at my place, and I’m trying to empower her to learn the language. One of the things I do is enroll my staff members into ESL classes. I try to live by example. I want to get more community members involved. I’m trying to plant that seed.
How did your family/mentors impact your career development?
My mom and dad were my first mentors. I got my first job at 13. I used to earn $35, but my mom would take $10 away from me every week. And when she reached $100, (my parents) opened my first bank account. And that paved the way for me to be a saver.
My father was expecting us to do well in school because he always said, “We’re in the United States now, so you have to work really hard to have more opportunities.” He was 38 when (my parents) bought their first house, and then he went to get his GED to be able to help us with homework.
When I moved to New Hampshire, my insurance agent became my mentor because I would ask questions about the business, like what do I do? How do I go to the next level? I always like to ask questions of those who I feel are the right people who can answer me and are people I can trust. I have a great network.