When pressure piles up in Felix Guzman’s life, he feels the stress manifest in an unusual place. “By the end of the day”, says Mr. Guzman, “I can barely read. I’m on my feet all day and have a bad back, but I feel it in the eyes.”
Mr. Guzman, owner of Reyna’s – a Mexican restaurant just blocks from PLU- has dealt with more worries in the past couple months than in his entire career. He’s lived here for more than 20 years, started Reyna’s from nothing, hand-painted the building and crafted the menu. Despite all his efforts, he doesn’t know if his family will be around next winter. “I’ve been knocked down before,” says Guzman. “But this time feels as though I’ve been hit when I was still getting back up. If something happens, then I don’t know if I can get back up again. I might be down for good this time.”
Mr. Guzman is usually an animated man, constantly weaving throughout his restaurant to chat with his customers. Tonight though, the barren seats of the restaurant makes him especially weary. His hands, still scented with tomatoes and diced onions, have fresh pink burn scars on them. He can’t afford any new hires, he explains, and must fry the rice dishes himself.
When asked about the future of his restaurant, Guzman says he genuinely doesn’t know how things will play out. He’s trying to find if there’s anything he can do to put the fate of the restaurant back into his own hands. Guzman is far too busy during thein day to sit and think about the questions that loop through his mind. But now, with the place shuttering closed for the night, his worries unspool. He shares them in a soft voice colored with a lilting north Mexican accent, over the sounds of Univision and dishwashing chattering in the background. What can he do to get students to eat here again? Can he afford to have his whip-smart daughter pursue college?
His skill for conversing with customers is what helped get him ahead, back when he was a teenager working at a tourist shop in Tijuana. He still catches himself reminiscing about Mexico – about the family he has there, the welcoming bars and expanse of the Sonoran night sky.
Here in Parkland, however, is where he’s planted his roots. His whole family is built around the corner-stone of restaurant life . His wife, the restaurant’s namesake, is much more reserved then Felix,, though it comes off more as a dignified calm than reticence. She sits in the corner, letting her legs rest from a 12-hour day, and watches their 6-year-old son play. Felix says customers sometimes complain about his kid prancing throughout the restaurant, but trying to raise him while working full time means keeping him around. He has an 11-year-old daughter that helps out occasionally, though she’s more interested in her studies, notes Mrs. Guzman with pride. It’s the uncertainty about their future that Mr. and Mrs. Guzman feel most acutely.
Places of the United States with high unemployment rates were hit disproportionately hard by the 2008 recession. Parkland proved no exception– Felix traces the beginnings of his financial shakiness back to that time. He and his wife sunk almost 20,000 dollars into renovation, but his efforts to rejuvenate business remain fruitless. One of the first things you notice walking into the restaurant is an unlit room sectioned off by a purple curtain. Reyna’s needed to sell the space to pay off bills.
Mr. Guzman says the roughness of the neighborhood (a shop next door was recently busted as a drug front, he says) is a contributing factor in the slump. Felix says that the business side of PLU was good about helping him for the last four years, but things have changed since last March. There’s been problems with the PLU contractor, who oversees the business on Garfield St., and has difficulty contacting the administration for the assistance he needs to stay afloat. Internet apps like Yelp may help consumers, but are just another source of anxiety for restaurant owners like Felix. More than once he brings up a story of a customer being dissatisfied with the wait staff and burning him on social media. He holds a respectable 3 1/2 star rating on the website, but the incident still seems to haunt him.
Felix doesn’t seem angry or disappointed at any of this. He doesn’t harbor ill will towards anyone. He just wants to know if there’s anything he can do. “My motto is this. Your customers are family. You invite them in for a family meal, and they will come back.”
“Students are my main livelihood. The best part of my day is going up to tables, talking to my customers, talking to students” says Mr. Guzman, stroking his mustache pensively. His website is full of pictures of past and present Lutes, but there’s less and less students these days. He’s tried advertising in the student paper, or on KPLU, but he received no response. He needed KPLU to cut a deal with him so he could afford the rates, but things fell apart in the last minute. The posters he puts up around campus are soon torn down. It’s impossible to forecast if his livelihood will follow suit.