Wallace, CA Change


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Brent Parsons
08/07/2014 1:40 PM
Irma and Jose Fieto and some of their staff stand ready for action at Bella Rosa II, in Sutter Creek. Photo courtesy of Brent Parsons

Leslie and I dine out rarely in the evening, because Leslie likes to cook and I support my wife in that endeavor. Once we are home, we usually stay, and my entertainment budget has always been the last one funded. We do eat lunch out at least once a week and have eaten at Bella Rosa, in Jackson, a dozen times. Our waitress is usually an upbeat and energetic young woman with a captivating accent who sometimes has children upstairs.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a Bella Rosa sign had replaced the Hootenanny’s one in Martell, followed a few days later by a “Bella Rosa Opening Soon” banner on Griffin’s Steak House, in downtown Sutter Creek. I asked our waitress about the changes and she happily filled me in. She knew a lot. It turns out she is Irma, Bella Rosa’s owner, with her husband, Jose. She had so much information that I asked to come back when I had something to write on.

The Fietos met me in Sutter Creek, at Bella Rosa II, at 11 a.m., on a Monday. The restaurant was already bustling with activity. Groups of employees were meeting and vendors were selling. A couple of cooks were prepping. The restaurant was in its second week. I asked Jose, who was working in the kitchen, if he would rather wait for a less busy time. He replied, “No this is good. Irma is on her way.” They both seem young but so do most people. They exude energy and they need it. I bet their only quiet time is on the 10-minute drive between restaurants. When the club opens in a few weeks, the breaks will be shorter yet. Jose knew the only time to talk would be the time he had just made. Irma arrived and we sat at a table behind the kitchen. They seemed genuinely excited about the challenges they had bought into. When I asked if they were overwhelmed yet, they smiled. If Bella Rosa fails, it would not be for lack of effort. Their humble confidence is infectious. I asked how they got to be the owners of three restaurants at what seemed to me to be an early age. Jose is 36. Their journeys explained where the confidence and competence come from.

Irma was born near Guadalajara and Jose, Vera Cruz. They did not meet in Mexico. They met in Jackson, where friends told them they could find good jobs. Jose majored in accounting at a university in Mexico. His dad operated a construction company that hired independent truck owners for county public works projects. I had trouble understanding the labor structure. He and Irma discussed the question in Spanish and then responded in English. By the hour’s end, all the answers were in English. “So,” I asked, “your dad hired operators who owned their own equipment to do government projects?” “Yes,” said Jose, “things are very different there. I bought two trucks and I came to the United States for what I thought would be a couple of years to pay them off.”

Irma interrupted, “And then he met me and now he’s stuck.” Jose smiled before continuing. He worked as a roofer and at El Torero as a bus boy for three years before doing maintenance and whatever was needed at Bellotti’s Restaurant. He started at 4 a.m., and when that shift was over, he walked down the street to The Palace, where, among other duties, he began to do some of the cooking. “My work days were 14 to 16 hours,” he recalled, “and I did landscaping on my days off.” I asked if the trucks are paid for yet. “Yes, they certainly should be. Otherwise my payments were not going where they should have been.” On his phone, he showed me a picture of them in a parade. One had a statue of Mary on its bumper. They were big and beautiful.

Irma and Jose met in 2005, while working at El Torero. She had been working in Amador since her arrival in 1991 with a husband she didn’t want to remember. Irma bussed tables and washed dishes until she learned enough English to waitress. She started cooking, too, pulling double shifts among the three restaurants she worked at over the years: El Torero, Bonanza and the Palace. She cleaned houses and raised two children. She and Jose were married in 2010. They have two children, along with the two from Irma’s early marriage.

When I asked about life in Mexico and if they ever plan on returning. Jose said that his parents were building a house for him (which seems to be a custom) but he is tied down here for a while. I would call that an understatement. He said that things had been rough in his hometown for many years. Corruption was rampant and the drug gangs extorted from anyone trying to work on what they considered their turf. His dad was kidnapped and only released when ransom was paid. The police were of no help. Things recently improved because the citizens rallied together and drove the bad guys out. Irma said the people picked up any weapon available, even a machete, to present a united front. The town has returned to its law-abiding residents. Irma’s hometown seems to be in a better state. She was one of 11 children. Irma started cleaning houses at age 11. Her home was without water or power. She walked to school and took care of six siblings. She studied by candlelight to get A’s and B’s in high school and be “the number-one student,” but her plans changed with an early marriage and child. She accompanied her husband in 1991 to work in Amador. Five of her siblings are here now, too. She still works long hours, but with a smile, because life is good. She considers herself spoiled, proof that it is all relative. She is thankful for her life of hard work, not only for the ethic it embedded but for the appreciation of where she is.

I asked how they went from working in restaurants to owning them, a big step in my thinking. They seemed to minimize the transition. Irma was doing more cooking and so was Jose. When the Twisted Fork moved into Bellotti’s for a year, Jose ran the kitchen. He became the chef and Italian cuisine his specialty. When Twisted Fork packed up for Lodi, Jose stayed with Griffin’s for another year. Both Bonanza and The Palace closed, illustrating not only the insecurity but the volatility of the food service sector. Rather than find something else, the Fietos decided to try to take control of their own future. They tracked down the owner of the closed Agave’s in Jackson and negotiated a lease. Two energetic cooks in a small restaurant was one too many and so they opened another in Ione. Business never took off there and when Hootenany’s closed a few months ago, they worked out a deal. The Martell location is awaiting the beer and wine license and should open in August. But opportunity is rarely an orphan. Shortly after they closed on the Sports Club, Dennis Griffin called with the offer of a Sutter Creek location. They knew the dining potential of the town and had to jump on that one, too. They closed in Ione and opened in Sutter Creek in one week. Thus far, business has been good. I asked how many employees they are up to, I had seen quite a few that morning. They did some calculating, “About thirty and the club will add another six.” At several points during the conversation, they expressed almost a joy in being able to provide jobs and that they lead by example. I doubt they ask anyone to do what they will not do themselves — and they have done it all. They are overseeing the training of two chefs and a master prepper who starts in Jackson at 6 a.m., before hitting the other two kitchens. His shift is over at 10, but is seven days a week. And he likes it.

I knew he was probably tired of the question but I had to ask it anyway — “Is the fact you are a Mexican cooking Italian ever an issue?”

If he was insulted by the inquiry, he hid it well. “Yes,” he replied, “I have encountered some, let me say, curiosity. But the simple response is to just keep cooking what I love to serve. Taste has no ethnic limitations. My family name, Fieto, is not a traditional Mexican one. The Mexican heritage is a broad one. There is a lot of European blood in the country. My family is 25-percent Italian, but my cooking is 100 percent.”

Irma strives for consistency and a pleasant dining experience. “A customer wants the same meatball or clam chowder he had last time,” she explained. “We keep the same offerings on our menu. We might add, but do not subtract. We run specials that people come in for. I emphasize to our employees that the restaurant can be an escape for diners from the stress of daily life. We must be happy and positive. Any of our personal drama must stay at home.”

What about the challenge for new restaurants if ordering enough, but not too much. My hardware inventory has a lot longer shelf life. They agreed that calculating food purchase quantities was not easy. That was the first challenge from me that they acknowledged was one and I felt a small victory. Irma responded. “Jose runs the numbers constantly and he is pretty good. (I remembered he had an accounting background.) We calculate that it will take about three months to determine buying volume.”

I asked if they knew that Thomi’s had just closed and there might be a market for breakfast in town. Jose quickly ran the numbers on his phone. “To pencil out,” he calculated, “we would need to serve around 150 a morning.” I dropped the issue. I’m risk-aversive by nature, and if these risks-takers said no, they meant no.

Both restaurants are currently open 7 days a week. Jackson closes between dinner and lunch, but Sutter Creek stays open through the afternoon. Jose might close one day a week, if he determines a slow-business candidate after the opening trial. There isn’t a winner yet.

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