Ramiro Alarcon was supposed to be preparing for his busiest dinner rush of the year: Monday’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
But on a recent morning, a chain-link fence wrapped around the edge of his east Sacramento restaurant, Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy. The parking lot had transformed into a makeshift scrap yard, with piles of scorched wood, a melted room heater and smashed picture frame, among other debris. A pungent scent of char filled the air.
The wreckage resulted from a two-alarm fire in the early morning hours of April 25. Alarcon was awakened by a call from his alarm company and arrived at a scene that was a restaurateur’s nightmare. Fire trucks surrounded the building with lights flashing, and part of J Street was blocked to traffic. A fire had erupted outside the rear of Cielito Lindo and devoured the back half of the restaurant.
“Why is this happening to me?” Alarcon said he thought to himself as firefighters doused the blaze. “What am I going to do now?”
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The Sacramento Fire Department initially suspected an electrical circuit or arson was the cause. According to a fire department spokesperson, the investigation remains ongoing.
Alarcon knows that keeping a restaurant open is already tough enough, especially in 2014 when profit margins are getting squeezed by spiking prices for limes, beef, bacon and other kitchen essentials. Research from Cornell University and Michigan State University found that 27 percent of restaurant startups failed in their first year, and 60 percent shuttered after year five.
A chef who trained at Mexico City’s Centro Culinario Ambrosía, Alarcon had previously served as executive chef at downtown’s Tequila Museo Mayahuel. Cielito Lindo marked his debut as a restaurant owner – and just seven months after opening, the scorched detritus of his dream awaited removal from the parking lot.
He believes the fire was set intentionally.
“I feel sad because I don’t know why someone would do this,” Alarcon said through an interpreter. “Why do people act like that? But I’m staying strong to get through everything.”
This restaurant has seen a string of fast food and hard times. Longtime east Sacramento locals know the building as a former Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise before its short-lived stints as PGR Thai Noodle and California Burrito.
But Alarcon never wanted Cielito Lindo to be the typical taqueria with brick-sized burritos and gooey nachos. This would be Mexican gastronomy, not south-of-the-border gut busters.
Alarcon had longed to run a restaurant since growing up in Mexico City, one that presented the widest possible spectrum of Mexican food. He fashioned much of the Cielito Lindo menu to showcase regional specialties: mole from Puebla and Oaxaca, slow-cooked cochinita pibil in the Yucatán style, lightly fried flautas that you’d normally find in Mexico City.
But as confident as he was with the cuisine, he felt plenty of jitters familiar to restaurateurs opening a new spot.
“I was scared because for the first two weeks, nobody came to the restaurant,” said Alarcon. “But after a while, it got really busy. People were happy about the food and the numbers were up, up up.”
Now, the supply room and his office remain an ashy mess, and wires hang from the ceiling. On the upside, the dining room and kitchen area suffered little damage, though plenty of cleanup is still needed. Spend just a few minutes walking through the restaurant and you’ll smell like the inside of a Weber grill.
Initial estimates from his insurance company pencil out damages of approximately $100,000. Alarcon said he expects Cielito Lindo to be closed for a maximum of six months for repairs, but hopes to open sooner. He frets about his employees dealing with lost wages.
“For many of the workers, this was the only job they had,” said Alarcon. “They’re having trouble.”
Depending on the final damage report, Alarcon said he may end up moving Cielito Lindo to another central city location. He prefers to keep serving food in east Sac, where the neighbors have shared plenty of encouragement during these uncertain times.
Either way, Alarcon knows he’ll be cooking up his Mexican specialties soon enough.
“I don’t want to move from here because I started here and the people know me,” he said. “I’m going to open again for sure.”