Wagner College students give Port Richmond restaurant a makeover

On Monday, Nov. 3, news media outlets New York 1 and the Staten Island Advance visited Los Potrillos restaurant in Port Richmond. The story: A Wagner College freshman learning community, LC2, had been studying business and business ethics with local restaurateur Maria Morales. To repay her for the time and wisdom she had shared with them, the Wagner students were painting the interior of Los Potrillos. Below are the stories produced by NY1 reporter Amanda Farinacci and Staten Island Advance reporter Diane Lore.


A Port Richmond restaurant got a face lift thanks to some Staten Island college students, help that the store’s owner says couldn’t have come at a better time. NY1’s Amanda Farinacci filed the following report.

The sign outside Los Potrillos Restaurant in Port Richmond reads “Open for Take-Out Only.”

Inside, the place is bustling not with food orders and customers, but psychology and finance students from Wagner College giving the restaurant a paint job.

“It opens it up a lot more. It has a more welcoming feature,” said student Maddie McNichol. “So I think it will help a lot.”

Wagner College students have been using Maria Morales’ restaurant as a classroom for the last five years. That’s because Los Potrillos is part of the Port Richmond Partnership, a Wagner College initiative formed back in 2007 to focus all the volunteer efforts Wagner students are required to do on a single community.

Students work in the neighborhood and in the classroom. Study focuses on health care, immigration, economics and education.

At Los Potrillos, they learn that anything can happen when running a small business, including the unexpected.

“I came in this morning, and her furnace went. So you can see, and I was telling the students how hard it is to run a small business with the budgeting aspect and the monetary constraints,” said Professor Richard LaRocca of Wagner College.

The cost of the paint and supplies needed were donated by Wagner College. Students spent time with Morales in the restaurant to come up with a design plan that reflected both Mexican culture and the family-friendly vibe of the space.

In the nine years since Morales opened, she said she’s noticed at least six new Mexican restaurants on Port Richmond avenue. Add that to the popularity of food trucks and delis that also offer up Mexican cuisine, and she said competition is tough.

“We start making a list for the things that I need, and they did it so fast and so easy,” Morales said.

Up next, the students plan to help Morales re-tile her bathrooms and decorate. Some walls will be left unfinished to serve as gallery space for local artists as part of roving exhibits planned for the future, something Morales hopes will draw even more customers to her restaurant.

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For several years now, Maria Morales, a small-business-owner and community leader on Port Richmond Avenue, has partnered with Wagner College, helping students at the Grymes Hill campus learn about what it’s like to own a business, and helping them understand the needs of the Mexican and Latino immigrant community in the North Shore neighborhood.

This year students decided to give back to Ms. Morales and the neighborhood by helping her fix up her storefront restaurant.

Some two-dozen Wagner students, armed with paint, brushes and ladders, descended on “Los Potrillos” restaurant Monday afternoon, bent on giving the place a make-over. The students, all freshmen, are enrolled in one  of Wagner’s signature “small learning communities” — this one devoted to business, leadership and ethics.

Wagner business professor Richard LaRocca, who teaches the class, along with psychology professor Amy Eshleman, said Ms. Morales has been meeting with his students since September, “sharing what she knows about starting and running a small business, and the needs of the community.” And “since part of what we teach is by ‘doing’, we decided it was time to do something to give back to her.”

The teens painted the interior walls of the restaurant in sunshine yellow, with a burnt-orange trim. They also ordered new tables and chairs for customers to the restaurant, and promised to return to install the furniture.

Ms. Morales, a single mother who has owned the restaurant for more than nine years, said she was grateful for the support from Wagner through the years  and appreciative of the students’ help in brightening up the restaurant. “Without them, I couldn’t have gotten it all done,” she said.

Students said they were glad to pitch in.

Birsena Ajvazovska, 18, of Great Kills, who wants to manage her own business one day, said Ms. Morales has been a role model and mentor and has helped her broaden her horizons.

“Growing up on the South Shore, I really never came down to Port Richmond or the North Shore that much. I’m glad I have a chance to make a difference here,” she said.

And, just for the record, Ms. Ajvazovska, along with her classmate, John Acquaviva, both described the food at Los Potrillos — especially Ms. Morales’ special guacamole and hot sauce — as “awesome.”

To see a slideshow of photos taken at Los Potrillos by photojournalist Jan Somma-Hammel, visit the Staten Island Advance website.