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The Hesston Record
345 Old Hwy 81
Hesston, KS 67062
(620) 327-4831

Family Celebrates 10 Years Of The American Dream

Posted 9/21/2017

By Jacquelyn Nelson

Hesston Record Staff

El Cerrito Mexican Restaurant, owned and operated by Juan Gomez, is celebrating its 10th anniversary today, Sept. 21, with all-day deals on food, prizes and games for children.

El Cerrito - meaning “My little mountain” has been the Gomez family’s American city on a hill.

Gomez and his wife, Maria, immigrated to the United States Feb. 13, 2001.

Gomez and his wife, Maria, immigrated to the United States Feb. 13, 2001.

Married in 1999 at only 21 and 17, Juan said life in Mexico was difficult for the young newlyweds.

Juan said Maria’s large family already had members in the United States and the couple were encouraged to immigrate for the possibility of a better life. Juan, however, said while he had made visits to the United States, he was reluctant to pull up stakes from his hometown and family.

However, married to Maria, Juan said he would not have to make the transition alone.

“I didn’t have anything and didn’t want to move on my own. I wanted to have something. We moved to Dallas. We have one brother in Dallas, and started working there in the same place where he got a job for me. She started looking for somewhere,” he said.

Soon, more members of the Gomez clan began arriving in Dallas.

“When I moved and my brother came from Mexico to Dallas, and then my parents came too. We stayed together for a year, all in the same house,” he said.

After Juan was laid off from his job, he and Maria began hunting for new employment. Maria had family in South Carolina, and the couple moved once again. The job in South Carolina was Juan’s first introduction to the restaurant industry.

“We moved and started working and found a Mexican restaurant,” said Juan.

“I had a brother in the kitchen,” added Maria.

Juan started out washing dishes and making chips, eventually moving to the grill line.

The Gomezes once again reached out to Maria’s family - a brother in Emporia - who had ambitions of opening a restaurant in Emporia and in Wichita.

A cousin of the couple was the one who found the restaurant location in Hesston, but needed a significant investment to open the restaurant. Juan and Maria said they were reluctant to make such a major investment that could easily be lost.

Juan said before opening El Cerrito, he was interested in opening his own business, but one a far cry from the restaurant industry.

“Before I came to Hesston, I saved money and wanted to build something where I was from. I was a carpenter. I was working furniture repair. I bought the trailer and the tools to make a carpenter shop. I was thinking about carpentry more than the restaurant business,” he said.

But, with many family members experienced in the restaurant industry, Juan said many of his extended family members made the move with the couple to Hesston.

“Her mom and dad and sister and brother all moved from South Carolina,” said Juan.

Maria’s brother was the first cook at El Cerrito.

“We opened the restaurant with a brother, and wife’s cousin and me. There were three partners, when we started to open here, we didn’t have enough workers. It was hard to find people to work because not many people in town knew about us and not many people know how to work in a kitchen and restaurant. It’s why we decided to bring all the family. It started as a family business because it was almost all family that worked here.

“Dad did the dishes, mom did the chips and husband and sister bus tables and a waiter. I’m working the front and a little in the back. When it first started it was all family except for one of the cooks,” said Juan.

The early years of El Cerrito were difficult while word spread in the community about the Mexican restaurant. However, the Gomezes got involved in community-building and said their efforts were paid back 10-fold.

“When you start spending time and help the community, the community comes and helps you. The first couple of years, the first three years, were not as busy as we are now. We were not making any money those first three years.

“When they started to build the library, and we helped the library, giving 15 percent to the library, I started seeing more people coming in. I saw new faces and they started coming back.

“That’s why I feel when you help the community, do anything like to support, that gives back to you and you want to help more. When you give that money, you receive it back, and more,” he said.

The success of El Cerrito, Juan and Maria said, comes down to the patronage of residents and the grace of God.

“I always say this is God’s restaurant. God gave this to us for something and he planned to do something with it,” said Maria.

Today, El Cerrito continues to be a family business, with the Gomez children coming in to help on occasion.

“My daughter comes in on Saturdays to help with brining chips and cleaning tables,” said Juan. After celebrating 10 years in business, Juan hopes to stay in Hesston for 10 more.

“We are going to try to stay here and have it going like it is going now, and to try to help the community and keeping being a good restaurant. It’s hard; it’s not easy,” he said.

Juan said as he keeps his livelihood and family in Hesston, he has come to appreciate the acceptance of the community.

“I hope my kids will stay in Hesston, maybe take over the restaurant. It is a really good place to stay with the kids. They help a lot, in the schools, they are very good and the community is very nice. It’s one of the places that is more beautiful because of the people,” he said.