Mauro Gonzàlez, a co-owner of Ocean Breeze Bar & Grill in Midlothian, doesn't want to become another statistic. He's painfully aware that about one in four restaurants close or change ownership within the first year of business, and that number rises to three in five after three years.
"I'm fighting so hard to survive," Gonzàlez says. The fight includes working two jobs. During the week, Gonzàlez leaves Richmond at 4 a.m., puts in a full day as a plumber in Norfolk, then makes it back to his restaurant at about 6:30 p.m. and works until 11 p.m.
"I'm not afraid of work," he says. "As a little kid, I carried water to my parents' home. No one had water or electricity in my village in Oaxaca. I used to care for goats, take them to the market. Work I have always known. If I have two hands and two feet, I can work."
It was his desire to work and save money that drew him to America. A high-school graduate at 16, he walked across the border in Tijuana, lured by stories of good-paying jobs.
"I planned to work two years, save money and return [to Mexico] to build a house for my girlfriend," Gonzàlez, now 38, says. "I went to California, worked in 110 degrees, 12 hours a day. I got 16 cents for each dustpan of grapes I picked."
After three months, Gonzàlez moved to Seattle, picking apples and pears. Disappointed by the low pay, he returned to Mexico but came back to the U.S. a few months later with renewed hope, fueled by a friend who promised to get him a job in the U.S. But it didn't work out.
"After six months, I finally found a job washing dishes for $5 an hour. I worked my way up through the salad and pasta stations. I think, ‘I can't quit now; I'm making $8.50.' I asked for vacation, went back to Mexico, got married and returned in 15 days."
When asked about illegally entering the U.S., Gonzàlez says, "I have this conversation with other people. They say, ‘If you want to be in America, come legally.' They hate people who come illegally. They don't understand. If I say I want my passport for work, it's turned down. Only rich people can come here legally. My parents, who are already old, can't even get approved to come and visit me.
"America wants people to spend and then leave. In 1990, we didn't have a choice, if we wanted to come. I started to save money right away. As soon as I could, I found a sponsor — a man I worked for. I had to pay about $9,000, most in legal fees. I waited and waited. Finally, my wife and I got papers in 1995."
With his working visa secured, Gonzàlez found jobs at restaurants in New York City for 15 years, rising to be a chef before opening his own, Jack's Fifth Avenue, its name a takeoff of the famous Saks department-store chain.
"We were doing very well," he says. Then his family came to Richmond for a visit.
"My friend here said, ‘You can look at houses. You don't have to buy.' But my wife — she fell in love with a house."
Gonzàlez began a three-year commute to New York. Finally, in 2005, he decided to move Jack's to 13923 Hull Street Road.
"Some people came but not enough. I thought, ‘Maybe they can't identify with the name. Maybe the building's not pretty enough.' I decided to refurbish and choose a name that means seafood."
Jack's became Ocean Breeze Bar & Grill, and Gonzàlez took on a partner, Manuel Cedeo, a native of Costa Rica who came to America legally when he was 19.
"Getting to America was a miracle for me," Cedeo declares. "Eight out of 10 people are turned down."
Cedeo, now 49, first cleaned bathrooms for $3.35 an hour in Miami. Now he owns Coast to Coast Construction Company, based in Chesterfield County. He renovated Ocean Breeze, using the work as balm after his 16-year-old daughter died from cancer.
"I painted the building the color of sand, added a tall glass tower like a lighthouse, installed an environmentally sound fishpond outside and aquariums inside, constructed the bar to look like an old ship," Cedeo says. "When we opened, people were standing in line."
Sadly, that changed. Gonzàlez says that customers were complimentary about the food, but he didn't have the right management in place, or enough wait staff to handle the load. He believes he's corrected the problems, and now he's left hoping that people will give his restaurant a second chance. I tried it myself at the urging of Martha Anderegg, my college roommate, who has known Gonzàlez for years. I've since become a regular customer.
"What people don't understand is that local restaurants need a chance to grow up," Gonzàlez says. "I may have to close my doors because I don't have the money to compete against franchises. It's really, really sad, and it's not just about making money."
Gonzàlez's wife and their teenage son, who wants to become a doctor, also work at the restaurant. The couple also has three young daughters.
"I don't want to be rich," he says, "I just want to support my family."
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.