Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Luis Contreras and Gisela Bellina at the Local Juicery + Kitchen.

The Local Juicery + Kitchen isn't just Luis Contreras' business – it's his mission.

"I want people to come in and feel they're safe," says Contreras, who bought the business with wife Gisela Bellina in April 2019. "Everyone is welcome – size, color, beliefs, sexuality – none of that matters," Contreras says. "When you're here, you're safe from judgment."

That welcoming spirit is more than just a business strategy for the shop dedicated to offering fresh and healthy juices, smoothies, bowls and snacks. Contreras came to the United States from his native Venezuela in 2003, coincidentally in the the same year his future wife emigrated from Peru, he says. They each settled in central Florida, where they met in 2012 and married the next year. Contreras and Bellina say the years they spent in Florida were difficult at times.

"When I started working, people would tell me to go back to my own country," says Bellina, who says she became an American citizen in 2012. "They'd say, 'I want an American to help me.'"

The couple moved to Nashville in 2015, when Bellina got a job with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, but they soon decided that wasn't where they wanted to raise a family. They'd passed through Chattanooga on their way to Nashville and liked the look of the Scenic City.

In 2016, Bellina won a Chattanooga-based BlueCross job, and the family, which by then included daughter Valentina, made the short trip down Interstate 24.

"[Chattanooga] was welcoming and warm," says Bellina, who is in project management at BlueCross. "We have no family here, but our friends are our family."

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Local Juicery + Kitchen owners

Contreras had worked in commercial cleaning in Florida, where family members owned a franchise business, and in Nashville, as well. But he says that when he got to Chattanooga, he wanted to do something different.

"I'm an immigrant in Chattanooga with no money," he says. "Not a good combination."

He says he got a job selling life insurance and, as he broke into that business, he found himself meeting "amazing" people who inspired him. "They inspired me to be bolder," he says. "To just have the [guts] to go for it."

Contreras says his dream was to have a bar or restaurant – "I watched 'Cheers' a lot when I was a kid," he says – but he started with what he knew. With $10,000 raised via crowdfunding, he launched Squeaky Clean, a floor-cleaning business, in 2018.

"Money from strangers," he says. "It was incredible."

He then met the owner of Local Juice, who was looking to sell. Contreras says he "knocked on every bank door" before Pinnacle agreed to back him.

Contreras had a big year in 2019 – he became an American citizen and, in addition to opening the business he'd always wanted, he expanded. Local Juice opened locations in Erlanger Medical Center and near Hamilton Place.

Then came COVID-19.

Contreras saw Erlanger close its Local Juice location in March, and he says he closed the East Brainerd store the same month. Then he had to lay off his entire Main Street staff and try to keep that location open himself.

"If I don't [let staff go], we don't have anything," he says. "I almost quit, but we were able to hire everybody back in about a month.

Local Juicery + Kitchen

* Address: 48 E. Main St.

* Online:

* Owners: Luis Contreras and Gisela Bellina

* Employees: 5

"I couldn't have done any of this without our staff," Contreras says. "Our staff has been our family – they've been there for us."

Contreras says the toughest part of the spring was not only trying to keep Local Juice flowing, but doing it without "my girls" – Gisela, Valentina and younger daughter Ariana spent about four months back in Florida, staying with extended family.

"I try to look at the positives," Contreras says, "and I realized that having to handle three locations was hurting us as a family, hurting me as a human being.

"So COVID has changed my perspective, shoved me back into our original mindset and made me remember why we moved to Chattanooga – for our family," he says.