When Angelica Flores started working at Ray’s Luncheonette as a waitress at the age of 16, she dreamed of owning the Walnut Street restaurant. In 2018, she made that dream come true.

Now, with a $40,000 grant through American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the 30-year-old — Ray’s youngest owner in its history — will have critical support for continuing after a year that saw business communities struggle through lockdowns and restrictions. Ray’s is the only New Jersey establishment selected for the grant program, which awarded more than $1,000,000 to businesses nationwide this month.

Amex announced its recipients May 12; the businesses learned earlier in the month.

Flores was Ray’s fifth owner in its 40-year history — and values the tradition connected with it. She kept the same menu the luncheonette had for years, but added new items: empanadas, rice and beans, and cafe con leche.

Purchasing a restaurant meant more than just achieving Flores’ own dream — but also her father’s, from when her family first arrived in the United States from Ecuador. 

Flores is also the head cook. Her mother Colombia and husband Alberto help her in the kitchen. Her sister, Genesis, and brother Edgard, along with his girlfriend, help out in the front. 

That first year, Flores saw a great influx of customers, old timers and new ones, trying the new items that were well received.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and lockdowns forced restaurants first to only provide to-go orders and then to operate at limited capacity, Flores saw a decrease in sales.

“We made it through,” Flores said. “Our loyal customers came in every day. They were tipping $5, $20, which kept our staff alive, too.”

But Ray’s struggled, and Flores thought of closing the eatery for good. 

That’s when she heard about the Amex grant from James Cotter — a community organizer, fundraiser, former candidate for elected office and advocate for various issues in Montclair.

Councilman at-large Peter Yacobellis, a former chief of staff for American Express, had been aware of the grant, he said. He reached out to Fourth-Ward Councilman David Cummings, seeking a suggestion for a business that might apply, and Cummings thought of Ray's, he said. Yacobellis next reached out to Cotter, asking him to work with the owner to submit an application, since they knew each other.

Flores had babysat for Cotter, and taught his kids Spanish, she said. 

“I went over to his house, got everything we needed,” Flores said. “He helped me. He got me through the whole process.” 

Several weeks passed before Flores received an email letting her know Ray’s was a finalist. She couldn’t believe it.

“I was so happy. It’s a step closer,” Flores said. 

She submitted additional documentation Amex requested, and waited for the final answer. 

The weekend Ray’s got the approval, there had been a huge accident at the luncheonette. A cabinet behind the counter fell to the ground, breaking everything inside, including dishes. It’s door would need to be fixed, and it needed to be re-mounted. 

“I was really depressed since everything is slow, and I gotta spend more money that I don’t have,” Flores said. 

Flores got together with her father and husband, and fixed the cabinet themselves. Once they finished the repair, Flores checked her inbox and saw the email: Ray’s had won the grant. 

“The email said ‘Congratulations. You’re a winner,’” Flores said. “I was excited. I was crying. I couldn’t believe it. Bad things happen, but better things come.” 

Flores is planning to modernize Ray’s by investing in new windows that can open, purchasing retractable awnings for the side of the building to provide shade and cover from the rain, getting a wind cover for the front, re-painting the exterior and changing out an air condition system that haven’t been renovated for 30 years.

“I'm thankful to American Express for the way they consistently back small businesses all over America and especially in Montclair,”  Yacobellis said. “Much-deserved congratulations to Ray's Luncheonette for being such a staple of our small business community and to [Fourth Ward] Councilor David Cummings and community leader James Cotter for their help. I'm certain this grant will go a long way." 

Cummings said he thought of Ray's because of its long history in town.

"Ray’s is special in Montclair," he said. "It’s original owner, Ray Festa, supported many organizations and the Festa family continued his legacy after he passed. The ownership may have changed, but Ray’s is still a great place to eat and this grant will continue to support a Montclair treasure.” 

Courtney Redfern lives a couple of blocks away from Ray’s and has been coming since 2015.  “I’m delighted that they have gotten the grant and they absolutely deserve it,” she said. 

“I just think it’s been part of the community for so many years,” Kahane Cooperman, another longtime customer, said. “It’s just great to see a beloved institution like Ray’s get this acknowledgement” 

Janet Kiss, who also lives in the area, said she came every day during the pandemic to support Ray’s, and continues doing so. 

Flores is thankful for all the support Ray’s has received since she became the owner, and for allowing her, and her family, to continue serving the Montclair community. 

“I want to tell all the women and all the business owners to keep strong,” Flores said. “We’re still here. Just keep fighting, keep striving for the better. I think that helping each other and being together as a community, it’s what makes Montclair, Montclair.”