In the Bible, God gave manna to the Israelites to nourish them for the 40 years they wandered the desert. The recently opened El Manà in Carmichael is named for the heavenly foodstuff, and churchgoers who own the restaurant hope every taco and stuffed corn pupusa sold will help build a worship space of their own.
"We started from the bottom," said the Rev. Sergio Martinez of Sacramento's Palabra Miel church, which is affiliated with a Pentecostal denomination headquartered in Guatemala. "Sometimes people put limits, like obstacles, on a lot of things. With God, you can do everything."
El Manà sits on a small, wedge-shaped island at the corner of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Manzanita Avenue. The taqueria is thought to be one of few eateries in the Sacramento region if not the only one owned and operated by a faith group.
Several congregations run coffeehouses, but they do so on church grounds with limited hours and aren't licensed to cook and serve food, Sacramento County officials said. El Manà, by contrast, is seven miles from the Arden Arcade church that lends worship space to Martinez and his 150 parishioners. It is the group's fourth church location since the Guatemalan immigrant moved from Los Angeles to launch the Sacramento congregation nearly a decade ago.
Martinez had no food service experience. Instead, he says, he was inspired by the story of Zambian farmer-turned-evangelist Angus Puchan, whose own faith journey and agricultural triumph were chronicled in the 2006 film "Faith Like Potatoes." Martinez spent nearly two years seeking a building for the restaurant, and began leasing 7429 Fair Oaks Blvd. in July 2012.
There was much work to be done. "We got only the box," said Martinez, referring to the stripped-out space. Church members pitched in at every turn, from reviving the dead landscaping and planting trees to painting the interior and installing gas lines. Younger members held car washes, hawked homemade tamales, collected cans for recycling and sold chocolates at various graduation ceremonies to raise money toward the $3,000 monthly rent, said Karen Martinez, the pastor's daughter.
"Everyone from church has their own talent," said college student David Vivianco, who helped with the fundraising and, with his family, has belonged to Palabra Miel for several years.
Jorge Mendoza joined the church two weeks before the pastor announced his restaurant plan. With a background in construction, he was an essential part of the team, Martinez said, particularly in working with health, building and fire safety officials on the proper permitting and inspections.
"Every day was a challenge," Mendoza said. "For us, it was a fight because we didn't have all the contractors to guide us. It was just us, and God telling us (to) just keep (moving) forward."
There were a few low points along the way, especially when the oven hood had to be dismantled and reinstalled. Right before Christmas, Martinez says, he told his family he was about ready to give up. But things fell into place, and El Manà opened at the end of February.
The restaurant is run with a mix of paid employees and volunteers. It is open seven days a week. The decor inside is fairly plain, though the patio with its linen tablecloths and fuchsia accents, and trees draped with lights is cheerful. The menu is relatively small, and includes breakfast entrees and pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty of corn tortillas stuffed with melted cheese and vegetables or meat.
Chris Smith is a groundskeeper for the San Juan Unified School District and lives near El Manà. He has eaten there several times and enjoys the tacos, calling them "authentic." He was surprised to learn of the eatery's Christian roots since there is nothing on the premises no religious tracts, statues or other objects to reflect the religious affiliation, though the church band plays live Christian music (in Spanish) two nights a week.
Smith found out about the Palabra Miel church in casual conversation with a restaurant employee. "If she didn't tell me, you wouldn't have known. You'd just think it was your typical Mexican restaurant," he said.
Business so far has surpassed expectations, according to Martinez. The restaurant sold out by late afternoon the first few days. He believes it is possible to bring in $35,000 a month, and is already talking about opening additional locations. "Our mission is trying to show the people how they can do a lot of things. Nothing can stop you from doing the things you love," he said.
Mario Medina has belonged to the church for 10 years and worked at a Mexican restaurant in Roseville before El Manà opened. He is one of its four paid employees. Some may think Martinez's economic projections are optimistic, but not Medina.
"We've always known our pastor for doing things that people think are hard to do," he said, moments after delivering chips and water to a party of five servicemen on the patio. "We've always known him to set a goal that seems impossible but we always get there. We always believed."