When the fences outside his front door finally came down, Carlos Partida’s spirits immediately went up.
“At least I’ve got a light in the tunnel,” Partida says. “Let’s see now how things are going to get better.”
Owning a restaurant was Partida’s lifelong dream, one he fulfilled seven years ago after using his entire retirement savings (about $27,000) to purchase and fix up the Parsley Garden Cafe in downtown Fresno.
When I saw the opportunity here, I jumped on it.
Carlos Partida, Parsley Garden Cafe owner since 2010
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Early on, business was tepid. But things percolated after office workers and attorneys on the Fulton Mall discovered the cafe’s quality food, friendly service and reasonable prices. (A croissant sandwich costing $7.99 is the most expensive menu item.)
“It was really good,” Partida says. “We always had a long line at lunchtime.”
The long lines at Parsley Garden Cafe are long gone. Since March 2016, when the bulldozers and jackhammers started tearing up the mall to prepare for the reopening of Fulton Street, business has dropped nearly 70 percent, Partida says.
For months, potential customers had to negotiate a maze of fences and construction noise in order to reach the place.
Most didn’t bother.
“Nobody come,” Partida sighs. “Nobody wanted to deal with all these things. We even opened the back door and nobody come.”
A good lunch service, in the days before construction, would put between $800-$900 in the till. Nowadays, more like $150-$200.
“Sales kept going down, and the bills kept coming in,” says Blanca Partida, who greets customers and takes orders while her husband cooks. “This is the only income we have. It was a lot of stress.”
We knew construction would hit us, but we didn’t know how hard. We lost almost 70 percent of our sales.
So much stress that Carlos Partida, a youthful-looking 52-year-old with no previous health issues, suffered a heart attack in February and has spent the last six months recuperating at home. Leaving Blanca and the couple’s youngest son Alex, 21, to operate the cafe with occasional help from oldest son Christian, 24, who has a full-time job at another restaurant.
With six stents propping up the blood vessels around his heart, Carlos Partida returned to work last week on a part-time basis.
“We need him,” Blanca says.
Several months ago, faced with mounting bills and late fees, the Partidas took out a $20,000 loan. That money now gone, the couple recently had a long talk about whether to shut the doors, a decision made by several fellow small-business owners along the mall during construction.
Blanca admits she argued that side. But they opted to keep operating the Parsley Garden Cafe (named after a William Saroyan short story) in the hope business will perk up in October when cars drive and park on Fulton Street. (There are murmurs the block in front of the cafe will open sooner.)
“I just don’t want to close down after my husband put everything into this place,” Blanca Partida says. “All his savings and retirement money, just lose it like that. Wait a little longer and hope things get better.”
I was the one that wanted to quit.
Blanca Partida, Carlos’ wife
Carlos Partida’s journey 32 years ago from his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, to the United States was a typical one: He came here illegally.
During six years picking peaches, grapes and other crops, Partida took advantage of federal legislation that granted legal status to more than 1 million farm laborers. His dream of owning a restaurant in mind, Partida later became a naturalized citizen.
That wasn’t the only opportunity Partida also took advantage of. He worked as a dishwasher at Bob’s Big Boy on Blackstone Avenue and used the spare hours between the end of his shift there and one at another job to observe the cooks.
Eventually the manager gave the dishwasher his chance behind the grill. Partida proved he could handle himself, was soon promoted and went on to cooking positions at several area restaurants and hotels.
During this time Partida worked a second job as a repairman (“I always had two jobs,” he says) and over 17 years scraped together the modest nest egg he used to buy the Parsley Garden Cafe from its original owner.
“I never looked to be rich off the business,” he says. “I just wanted something to provide my family. And we started building up.
“All around us, we’ve seen other restaurants and businesses come and go. But we’re still here.”
Last week, the fences in front of the cafe came down. It’s now possible to walk across the street without taking a circuitous route. Partida understands the reopening of Fulton Street, with its wide sidewalks and parking right outside, will make the place even more accessible, but wonders why the city didn’t do more to help in the meantime.
The few incentives that were offered (some reduced fees, validated parking that customers complained was often rejected) either didn’t apply to his business or weren’t enough. On top of that, Partida says his landlord refuses to make improvements to the building’s exterior (despite incentives to do so) while continuing to raise his rent. It goes up another $100 in September.
We got to the point where we can’t pay rent, we can’t pay bills, we can’t pay Health Department and the landlord, he still raised the rent. He don’t care. He says it’s in the contract.
The last six months have been brutally hard. Despite double-bypass surgery Partida’s heart still doesn’t receive enough oxygen. While seeing his own hospital bills pile up, having to sit at home while his wife and son devote long hours to a cafe that’s on the brink of failure nearly plunged him into depression.
“The only thing that keeps me going is being positive, thinking this is only temporary and trust our service and our food and hoping everything is going to be back to normal,” he says.
The reopening of Fulton Street is intended to provide a jolt for restaurants and cafes along what used to be downtown Fresno’s main commercial corridor, and hopefully lure in new ones.
But if doing so kills off places like the Parsley Garden Cafe and dashes the dreams of people like Carlos Partida, is that truly progress?