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Octavio Diaz, owner of Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Healdsburg, offers food that's very close to his heart, whether its his tequila-cilantro vinaigrette, his mother's Oaxacan mole or the giant shrimp he marinates in Centinela tequila.

Diaz, 34, is quick to point out — with all due respect — that the food he offers at his 13-month-old restaurant isn't the usual offering of tacos, burritos, rice and beans.

"Taquerias were the foundation," Diaz said. "That's why we're here and that's why we've evolved from that foundation."

His endeavor, he says, represents a "new vision" of Latino business, one that builds on the foundation of previous generations of Latino-owned businesses, and one that takes advantage of a growing number of educated and middle class Latinos and the mainstreaming of Latino culture.

During the past decade, the number of Latino-owned businesses in Sonoma County has grown dramatically, according to a national survey of business owners conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every five years.

County-wide data, released Thursday, found that the number of Latino-owned businesses went from 2,765 in 2002 to 4,096 in 2007, an increase of 48 percent. By comparison, the number of non-Latino businesses in the county during the same period grew to 48,362 from 45,525, an increase of 6.2 percent.

That growth mirrors both national and statewide trends showing the rapid growth of Latino and minority-owned businesses.

In 2007, when the most recent business owner survey was taken, minority-owned firms numbered 5.8 million, up from 4 million in 2002, an increase of 45.5 percent. The national results were also released this week.

Of those, Latinos owned 2.3 million non-farm businesses, one million of which were owned by people of Mexican descent in 2007, an increase of 43 percent over 2002. In contrast, the number of non-Latino, non-farm businesses increased 14 percent to 23.8 million.

The survey tells a story that some local and state officials can only appreciate anecdotally, as Latino mom and pop businesses continue to appear throughout the county. Neither municipal, county nor state officials track business growth by ethnicity, local and state government officials said.

"Future jobs and the future economy are tied to growth in Hispanic and minority businesses," said Ben Stone, director of the county's Economic Development Board.

Stone said the trend reflects both the growth in the local Latino population, which is younger than the overall population. The numbers also show that Latinos, like any other growing ethnic group before them, have a strong entrepreneurial streak.

Of the 4,096 Latino-owned businesses in Sonoma County, 3,388 had no paid employees, according to the 2007 census survey.

"You have a rising demographic of Hispanic residents who are going to want to open their own businesses just like any other demographic," said Robert Eyler, director of Sonoma State University's Center for Regional Economic Analysis.

"We're seeing Latino and Hispanic entrepreneurship and we have to support it," he said. "It needs to be embraced."

The 2010 census revealed that Latinos make up a quarter of Sonoma County's population, up from 17 percent in 2000.

Diaz, whose last job before he opened his own restaurant was working as a food and beverage manager and wine buyer for a major hotel chain in Petaluma, said today's business owners are younger and more educated.

After coming to the United States in 1989, Diaz became a citizen nine years later. He received an associate degree from Santa Rosa Junior College, where he studied accounting and business management. He enrolled in the junior college's extended opportunity programs and services, or EOPS, and Puente programs, which seek to help economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students.

As the number of Latino businesses in the North Coast continues to increase, some Latino business owners are seeing greater opportunities to organize and help each other grow.

In Santa Rosa, a new business networking group called Negocios Unidos (United Business) has formed to help each other and also make contributions to the local Latino community.

"We are all our own great resources," said Gia Martinez, a former corrections officer who now runs her own bail bonds and notary public business in Santa Rosa.

The group, which numbers about 50 businesses, includes photography, landscaping, catering and eateries. And its owners are not just Mexican or Mexican-American, but also Salvadorans, Peruvians and Guatemalans.

Martinez herself was born in Mexico and was brought to the United States when she was 3 months old. She was reared in the East Bay and came to the North Coast about 15 years ago. She said her dream of becoming a police officer motivated her to become a U.S. Citizen in her mid-20s.

Martinez, who worked as a Sonoma County correctional officer for 10 years, opened Gia Martinez Bail Bonds in Santa Rosa about a year and a half ago.

"On a personal level, I am amazed at how many Hispanics have their own business," Martinez said. "They come here, they strive to be successful, they strive to learn the language...I'm very proud to be among a people that also break down barriers."

Marcos Suarez, president of the Sonoma County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he's made a priority of bringing such networks into the chamber's fold.

"Our focus right now is to target those monolingual, Latino small businesses that don't typically join chambers," said Suarez, an account manager for Telemundo 48, a mostly Spanish-language television station that serves the Bay Area and North Bay market.

Suarez said many of the Latino business owners he's talked to say they could use help dealing with landlords, navigating the business permit process or accessing capitol — in short, mastering the fundamentals of business to achieve greater success.

Diaz, the owner of Agave Restaurant, said his sons Diego Fernando, 5, and Emilio Francisco, 3, are the reasons he wants to succeed. Just as his family worked hard to ensure his success.

"I want them to go to college," he said. "I want them to be very, very successful in whatever they want, as long as they finish college."

News Researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.