An extinction event. That’s what New York restaurateur and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio recently called the pandemic, warning bleakly that as many as 85 percent of the nation’s independent restaurants could close permanently as a result of COVID-19. Imagine 85 percent of Sacramento’s restaurants disappearing for good. What if you could never again eat at your favorite Thai place? Or grab a beer and a slice at your neighborhood pizzeria? Or celebrate another milestone birthday at Mulvaney’s B&L or The Waterboy?
La Flor de Michoacan in Natomas is one of hundreds of local restaurants fighting to stay afloat during the pandemic. Serving Mexican and Salvadoran fare, La Flor is part of the gloriously diverse tapestry that makes Sacramento unique. To lose it would be a tragedy: for its owners, its employees, its customers, its community.
La Flor’s story is the classic American tale of hard work followed by success. In 1989, Maria Diaz moved to Sacramento in search of a better life for her children. A native of El Salvador, she bought La Flor, a struggling taqueria, and worked 14–hour days to turn it around. Eventually, a steady clientele lined up for her tasty tacos, burritos and enchiladas. After a decade in business, she expanded the taqueria into the space next door, adding tables and chairs for sit-down dining.
As more and more taquerias opened in Sacramento, Diaz set her business apart by adding pupusas to the menu. The national dish of El Salvador, pupusas are thick, griddled flatbreads made of corn masa and stuffed with cheese and chicharrón, refried beans or loroco flower buds. Diaz invented her own fusion-y versions, filling them with Mexican ingredients such as jalapeño and chorizo. Her customers loved them. “My pupusas,” she says, “became famous.”
Meanwhile, Diaz’s two daughters grew up in the restaurant, doing whatever needed to be done: prepping ingredients, cooking food, washing dishes, running the cash register. In 2006, daughter Ruby Moreno opened a second restaurant, La Flor Pupusas Grill on Fulton Avenue. The other daughter, Lizette Diaz, took on the marketing for the family business. Now 69, Maria still supervises the restaurants, popping in unannounced to taste the food and make sure it’s up to her exacting standards. “She’s her own secret shopper,” jokes Moreno.
But then COVID-19 hit. At the start of last spring’s shutdown, the Diaz family cleared out the tables and chairs and switched to curbside service. Employee shifts were cut. Receipts plummeted. Prices for staples such as meat and cheese nearly doubled. The family applied for federal PPP assistance several times but never heard back. Recalls Moreno: “I looked at my mom and said I think we’re on our own.”
Luckily, they’d always kept their overhead low, and they didn’t have to lay off employees. When commodities like meat and rice became scarce, Maria turned to friends for help. “My mom is a mover and shaker,” Moreno explains. “She knows people. Believe me, we all took care of each other.”
As the pandemic heads into its second year, the Diaz family is hopeful that their business will survive. Moreno looks at “older generations” who went through tough times, wars, famines. Like them, she perseveres.
Her mother has words of wisdom for her daughters—and for other restaurateurs trying to stay alive. “This is going to be over,” says Maria. “Maybe we won’t make as much profit, but that’s OK. We have to have hope and faith.”
La Flor de Michoacan
2339 Northgate Blvd.
La Flor Pupusas Grill
2454 Loma Vista Drive