The White Plains Examiner

Westchester is Pushing Entrepreneurs Forward

We are part of The Trust Project
Jewelle and Jaleene Rodriguez of Don Coqui restaurants.
Jewelle and Jaleene Rodriguez of Don Coqui restaurants.

Two White Plains businesses were featured at A Bridge to Success workshop presented by the Westchester County Office of Economic Development last week. Both, minority run and in the small business category, received proclamations from the County Executive’s office for their contribution to the community as well as their endurance and flexibility in surviving the ongoing economic difficulties felt nationally as well as locally.

Jewelle and Jaleene Rodriguez, co-operating officers of Don Coqui restaurants and Erwin Gilliam of White Plains’ Erwin’s Barber Shop, the honored guests, were also featured speakers at the event.

The Rodriguez sisters showed how youth, beauty and brains are a good combination for running a family business. They have taken over the reins of the four local Don Coqui restaurants, including the fairly new operation on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, from their father Jimmy Rodriguez and continue a family tradition established for three generations by their grandfather.

Explaining that as sisters, they are best friends, Jewelle and Jaleene, noted their business relationship remained just that and did not flow over into their personal lives. Jewelle handles the night operations and Jolene manages the staff and marketing operations.

“We focus on the individual guest,” Jewelle said. “As a small business we can do that, but it takes dedication to a seven-day-a-week schedule. If issues come up we handle them on a one-to-one basis.”

Jewelle also explained that marketing is a major part of being successful but that it can be expensive. In these days of social media, she found that using Facebook to grow a social network was the best option for her business. It costs nothing and really gets the word out, she said.

Erwin Gilliam said “I was Facebook before there was Facebook,” earning a giggle from the audience, but as one of the most popular local barbers, he meant it.

Jim Coleman (at the podium) introduces Erwin Gilliam, says he is one of Gilliam’s best customers.
Jim Coleman (at the podium) introduces Erwin Gilliam, says he is one of Gilliam’s best customers.

Gilliam began his career cutting hair when he was 12 and in 7th grade working on his friends in the school bathroom.

I did everything I could to get by as a youth he told the attentive crowd. Working as a short-order cook and doing several jobs at once, I saved up enough cash to open my own shop, he said.

In 1981, he came to White Plains and in 1999 at 26 years old, opened his first barbershop.

He was so successful that he eventually opened two shops, but had to consolidate back to one during the Great Recession.

For Gilliam customer satisfaction is everything and his greatest marketing tool is word of mouth. “Treat people the way you want to be treated,” he advised, “and they will come back.” If you run a service organization or retail, a good location is essential, he added.

Having won the NAACP award for the best barber shop in White Plains, Gilliam said you have to start with a vision and then turn that vision into dollars. Proof: the barbers working for Gilliam earn $55,000 to $75,000 annually.

Attendees at the workshop, held at White Plains Public Library, represented small minority-owned businesses. They were introduced to many of the grant and support programs the county offers and instructed on the basics of starting a new business.

Jim Coleman, Executive Director of the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency and also Westchester County Minority and Women Business Enterprise Liaison,noted that entrepreneurship and small businesses are the backbone of the economy and that the county was dedicated to help move small businesses along as much as possible.

One piece of advice from the professionals: Keep your expenses down as long as you can. White Plains Mayor Tom Roach told the audience that if you are working from your kitchen table, stay there as long as you can because once you begin to pay rent, that becomes a monthly cost you must continue to pay. “But when you do decide to get office space, find it in White Plains,” he said.

For more information visit


We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.