Ray Gonzalez and CocoRay’s
A Lawrence Renaissance is Born at the Revolving Test Kitchen
College students standing in line at CocoRay’s Borinquen Taqueria may not realize the impact of their lunchtime choice. In addition to grabbing a quick bite between classes, they are contributing to a bold new experiment when they order their taco, quesadilla or burrito.
37-year-old Ray Gonzalez, the affable owner of CocoRay’s on the campus of Northern Essex Community College, is the lucky first participant in the Revolving Test Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant designed to build the community’s food industry and help revitalize downtown Lawrence.
With his local roots and three years’ experience as the owner of a popular taco truck, Gonzalez was an obvious choice for the Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK).
The test kitchen, which has been designed to serve as an incubator for culinary entrepreneurs, is supported by prominent area leaders, including Mayor Dan Rivera; Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College; Sal Lupoli, CEO of the Lupoli Companies; Frank Carvalho, executive director of Mill Cities Community Investments and facilitator of the Lawrence Partnership venture loan fund; and Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, an organization of community and business leaders committed to stimulating the city’s economic development.
Glenn is happy to host the RTK on his campus. “We talked about how a restaurant could give back to the college and the larger community,” he says. “It’s already happening. Since day one, CocoRay’s has had lines out the door and around the block.”
Mitchell is also upbeat about the new venture. “Ray is making the most of this opportunity,” says Mitchell, who eats at CocoRay’s almost every day and has lately developed a soft spot for the eatery’s avocado-banana-chocolate-chip cookies.
“He keeps adding to his menu and testing the market. Ray’s learning as he goes, transitioning from his food truck, and creating jobs and excitement within the community.”
Gonzalez and his team, including his mother “Coco,” who is originally from Puerto Rico, opened their taqueria to much fanfare on Dec. 1. Since then, his dishes, which feature a fusion of Puerto Rican and Mexican flavors and ingredients, have been flying out the door of the Common Street location.
In a rare break, Gonzalez speaks about this opportunity and what it means to him.
“It’s more than I could have ever asked for,” he says. “I am so busy that it’s overwhelming at times. I happened to pick a good product, but I could never have made it this far without the support of so many people.”
Gonzalez is ecstatic and for good reason. In addition to getting a modern space to try out his restaurant concept, he has access to flexible financing, equipment, technical advice and business mentorship.
He speaks specifically of Lupoli’s generosity in donating all of the equipment for RTK.
Lupoli’s involvement runs deep and touches a personal chord. “I started my business at 23,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be a scrappy food entrepreneur. It’s tougher today to put together a business on a shoestring. You need lots of financial help and mentoring.”
Lupoli had his eye on Gonzalez from the start. “For his young age, he has solid practical experience. I liked his recipes and the diversity of his menu. He really stood out from the crowd.”
After about a year in the space, Gonzalez and his successors will be encouraged to move out and open and brick-and-mortar restaurants in Lawrence.
The Revolving Test Kitchen is an exceptional opportunity for both the city of Lawrence and people like Gonzalez, says Carvalho, a financier and former restaurateur who advises Gonzalez and several other businesses in town.
“Something is happening in Lawrence that is very positive,” Carvalho says. “Sure, the city has many challenges, but we are facing them, and things are definitely looking up.”
CocoRay’s Borinquen Taqueria