Monday, July 5, 2004

La Mexicana open under old management

Longtime owners tried to retire, but now they're back to 14-hour days, friendly service

By Karen Gutierrez
Enquirer staff writer

NEWPORT - Susy and Ray Garcia tried to retire this year from La Mexicana, the restaurant and store they run as a social hub for the Hispanic community here.

So much for that.

After just five months away from the business, the Garcias are back.

Ray Garcia (right) makes a phone call as his wife, Susy bags items for Rodrigo Morales (left) and his brother, Jose, in La Mexicana, Newport.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
Susy is behind the counter as many as 14 hours a day, selling long-distance phone cards and helping people wire money back home.

Ray has resumed running between La Mexicana and his upholstery business next door.

Last week, he even stepped in to chop meat while his butcher was on vacation.

Employees seem pleased to have them back.

"They said, 'Ray is grouchy, but he knows what's going on,'" Ray says with a chuckle.

The couple founded La Mexicana eight years ago in the 600 block of Monmouth Street.

The restaurant sells authentic Mexican food such as goat burritos and a dish known as al pastor, or seasoned pork shoulder. The store, located behind the restaurant, carries everything from Spanish-language CDs to mole sauce, tortillas and toiletries.

Ray started in the grocery business as a child in Mexico. He immigrated to the United States 35 years ago, became a citizen and worked in upholstery for many years. Then he and Susy opened La Mexicana.

Last year, she needed surgery. To cut back on stress, Ray sold the business to a customer who had big plans, the couple says.

He brought in computers. He printed fancier menus, adding Tex-Mex items like chimichangas. He raised salaries and lowered prices, projecting a huge increase in sales.

"He was a very good guy, intelligent, worked hard," Susy says. "Maybe he didn't understand that you have to be here 14 hours a day, no days off, and you don't have permission to be sick or mad."

Hispanic customers are very sensitive to the tone set by shopkeepers, she says.

If you don't say hi, they won't say anything, but they won't return, either, she says.

Soon enough, the new owner wanted out. Susy had recovered from her illness, so in April, the Garcias regained ownership.

"I had to come back," Ray says. "It would make me feel bad if I started something and then let all the customers go."



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