At lunchtime lately, many hungry people stride past a vacant storefront across from MetroHealth’s expanding Main Campus, enter the adjoining Half Moon Bakery and carry out crisp empanadas, rich Cubanos, sweet pastelillos and other treats.
They might not know that the cheerful couple greeting them inside struggled for five years before the bakery’s Jan. 3 opening, partly because of conflicts with a previous landlord and a contractor. They might not know that the husband has struggled with immigration during 17 years in this country, including a month in detention and two months abroad.
The Clark-Fulton neighborhood has struggled, too, facing crime, vacancies and foreclosures. But it seems to be taking a turn for the better. MetroHealth is spending more than $1 billion on its campus and nearby housing, and many other improvements are underway.
The bakery at 3460 W. 25th St. is called Half Moon for the shape of its empanadas, Hispanic pastries stuffed with meat, veggies, sauce and more. Half Moon offers other Hispanic fare, such as tacos and tripleta sandwiches, and some American, too, such as a chicken sandwich and cupcakes.
In Half Moon’s big windows, a few of its goodies are depicted in white paint. Inside, a speaker broadcasts Spanish Christian music. On the counter are handouts, from The Plain Press to Avon brochures to religious pamphlets in English and Spanish. On the periwinkle walls are signs saying “Blessed,” “Thankful,” “Life Is Better With Frosting” and “Bake the World a Better Place.”
In March, the pandemic drove away customers and workers. The bakery closed on March 31, before the shutdown order. It reopened on April 30 for takeout only. At first, says Velasquez, few people straggled in. Now business is almost as good as before.
Customers from near and far
Customers praise the place.
“It’s cute, and it’s convenient.” says Twuanette Lebron, who works across the street at MetroHealth. “I like the food.”
Shawn Strodtbeck often dashes here from downtown on his lunch hour. “Their Cuban is the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve traveled the country. It’s real roast pork and fresh Puerto Rican bread.”
Half Moon belongs to husband Gerson Velasquez, 34, from Guatemala and wife Lyz Otero, 32, from Puerto Rico, who supervise six colleagues. Says Velasquez, “God had a plan for me, not just having a wife and kids but this place.”
His name goes back to a son born to Moses in Egypt. It means “a stranger in a strange land.” Looking back on his years in America, Velasquez says, “In the beginning, I was feeling like a stranger. Now it feels more like home. Anywhere I go, I have friends.”
Back in San Marcos, his mother catered big affairs. “I was helping her a little bit, but I didn’t even know how to cook an egg.”
He says his hometown was safe and had plenty of jobs. But at 17, he itched for adventure. So he followed friends who said they were heading north. He didn’t ask where, and they all came without documentation.
He found himself in Houston, then tried New York. He says comrades resented him for not drinking. “I was getting a lot of enemies.” And he had trouble finding work. In New York, he ended up sanding floors with sandpaper and bleeding fingers.
A friend recommended Cleveland. Velasquez says he was kicked out of a house here for teetotaling. But he found better places to stay and a job washing dishes. He slowly worked his way up at restaurants, learning different cuisines.
He says some people laughed at his English but helped him find the right words. On the side, he took classes.
Then in 2006, he met Otero at a Chipotle here. She’d helped her mom run a restaurant in Puerto Rico. When she was about 13, the family came to Cleveland.
At Chipotle, she worked in the kitchen, and he supervised it, relaying management’s orders. Everyone obeyed him but Otero, who refused to do deep cleaning while tending customers. They ended up marrying and having three children.
Together or separately, Velasquez and Otero went on to several well-known venues around Cleveland, such as Lola, LockKeepers, Chinato and Forest City Shuffleboard.
Around 2010, Velasquez started applying for citizenship. It used to be automatic for spouses of citizens. Now it takes years of effort.
The bakery begins
Meanwhile, Otero began to serve empanadas at events at the children’s schools. The parents gobbled them up and asked for more. So the couple began to think about a place of their own.
In 2015, they got loans from the city, the Economic Community Development Institute, HFLA of Northeast Ohio [formerly the Hebrew Free Loan Association] and two local restaurateurs. They leased a storefront near MetroHealth, painted it and put in a new floor. But Velasquez says they couldn’t get commitments from the landlord. So they moved to their current location.
“It came with a lot of problems,” he recalls. “The place was like destroyed. There wasn’t any floor in the back. There were holes to the basement and the ceiling. You could see into the apartments upstairs.”
The couple did many of the renovations themselves. Velasquez says they also they paid $27,000 to a contractor who did a little work, then vanished. All told, the renovations cost about $100,000, plus some $72,000 in rent meanwhile.
President Trump’s immigration crackdown hit Velasquez one day in 2018. He drove the children from the family’s rental house in Old Brooklyn to their schools, then parked at the bakery. The place was in Otero’s name, but a police officer Velasquez had never seen before called out his name and served a warrant from immigration. The restaurateur suspects that someone with a grudge had reported him.
Immigration case records are confidential. Velasquez says he was detained for a month in Akron. Then a judge said, “We’re sending you back to Guatemala.” Velasquez had to spend another $7,000 on a lawyer and a bond.
Eventually, another judge sent him back but said he could return when a visa came. “You’re going to be a good addition to the country. You’re creating jobs and renovating the buildings and making the neighborhood a better place.”
It took Velasquez two months in Guatemala to get the visa and return to Cleveland. He eventually got a green card, good for 10 years. He’s still working on his citizenship.
When Half Moon finally opened, it drew crowds. “We were getting slammed, more than 100 people per day.”
A neighorhood reels and rebounds
Clark-Fulton became notorious in 2013, when three women escaped from nine to 11 years each of captivity in a home on Seymour Avenue. Now Velasquez hopes to help the neighborhood keep rebounding.
A Hispanic hub is growing a few blocks north at West 25th and Clark Avenue. Big buildings are being raised or renovated. Several arts organizations, civic groups and businesses are opening here. New MetroHealth Line buses link the medical center with downtown and distant suburbs.
MetroHealth Vice President Mike Tobin says, “Half Moon exemplifies what we hope and expect will happen in the coming months and years, with locally owned businesses opening to serve the growing neighborhood.”
Half Moon’s backers include Jim Miketo of Forest City Shuffleboard, which Otero and Velasquez helped to open. Miketo likes the food and the couple. “Their story is incredible They’re always happy. They’re infectious. The area’s going to come up around them.”
Success worth the struggle
Half Moon is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Velasquez dreams of opening other restaurants. Otero would rather expand Half Moon’s hours and space. She hopes to take over that vacant storefront next door, put tables there and serve dinner.
The couple says the bakery has rewarded all their struggles.
Says Otero, “You see people eating your food, and they tell you how good it is, and you see their faces, the happiness, I believe it was worth it.”
Says Velasquez, “God let me open the business. Even in this pandemic, God is blessing me. When he blesses me, I can bless people with jobs, I can be a better owner, a better husband.”
Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).