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Restaurant Owner Rebuilds Paradise, One Meal at a Time

Serving food to residents and workers is a family affair

portrait of Maria Garcia in the kitchen of her restaurant

Photo by: Wayne Lawrence

En español | PARADISE, California — Maria Garcia starts her days in the new Paradise at 6 a.m. to make hearty breakfast fare for the residents and rebuilders who need fuel for another day. And she doesn’t quit until 10 p.m. or later, hours after she’s stopped taking orders.

“It’s a miracle we’re here,” says Garcia, 54, who is helped by two employees as well as her son, 23, and daughters, 18 and 15. Her husband pitches in, too, despite health problems.

“God saved this place for us, because he wanted us here to feed the workers — the workers who are trying to put the town together,” Garcia says. “God had a plan for us.”

In the days just after the sweeping devastation that claimed the Garcia home and nearly 11,000 others in Paradise, God’s plan might not have been so clear.

Maria’s Kitchen, her unpretentious, colorful place, had been open for just months before the wildfire leveled much of this California town on Nov. 8, 2018. The eatery reopened in June.

Garcia and her employees wear purple T-shirts that say “Burritos!” as they prepare red and green salsa, mole sauce and chicken, pork and beef tacos, $3 each, and other entrées. Meals are delivered on paper plates, and patrons use plastic cutlery. There’s indoor and outdoor seating­, though many customers prefer carryout.

“Maria has a great following. Excellent food. And she is well loved,” says Monica Nolan, executive director of the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce. “To be among the very first restaurants to reopen after the fire is very inspiring and a great service to the community.”

To get back in business post-fire, Garcia faced twin obstacles: With more than 20,000 residents left homeless, her customer base was diminished, and most of the town’s water system was contaminated by cancer-causing benzene, a byproduct of all the molten plastic.

"God saved this place for us, because he wanted us here to feed the workers — the workers who are trying to put the town together. God had a plan for us."

— Maria Garcia

Still, Garcia is serving meals to some of the roughly 3,500 residents back in town and the 1,000-strong army of hungry laborers clearing debris, cutting down burned trees, repairing roads and erecting homes.

She had a 2,500-gallon water tank installed, and it’s refilled at $200 a pop with water from Oroville, about 20 miles to the south.

Soon customers were literally banging on the door. The restaurant at first was open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but work crews made it clear they needed her on Saturdays, too, so she added a sixth day. She serves about 40 to 50 people daily.

A native of San Luis Potosi in central Mexico, Garcia and her husband used to live in Los Angeles and relocated to Paradise in 2003 when he got a job installing cable TV wiring. It wasn’t long until they loved it. “Everything is peaceful and the people are very nice,” Garcia says. “Less stress.”
 

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