Cancer patient's restaurant gets boost
ARCOLA (AP) — Carmen Becerra knows a restaurant's success depends on how you make people feel — that's what brings guests back.
Becerra, of Arcola, has owned Carmen's Bar & Grill, at 126 Oak St., for about 18 months, and though she has a community of eaters that love her, the restaurant needs help. While the mother of three has battled to keep the restaurant in the black, she has also been in and out of treatment for breast cancer since 2007.
With her dream business at an intimidating plateau, a few colleagues have asked for outside help from chef Robert Irvine of "Restaurant: Impossible" from the Food Network. On the television series Irvine visits restaurants across the country in an attempt to keep good restaurants in business by revamping the dining areas, improving menus, re-training staffs and getting the word out about the overhaul spaces.
However, Denise Pullen says the staff isn't waiting for Irvine to save the place — they're attempting to do it on their own.
Workers with Salvage Construction of Mattoon spent a recent Sunday building walls to separate the space between the bar and the dining room.
"Originally the space was a small grocery, and even though a couple bars have taken over since then, when I walk in the door I still see the old grocery store," interior designer Anette Ferguson said. "We want people to see Mexico when they come in here."
Dan Salvage, the contractor for the project, said they've never worked on a restaurant before, but his staff finished the job by Sunday evening.
The four-man crew framed the wall before hanging drywall and doors and giving the walls a textured, stucco look.
Ferguson, owner of Top Coat Interior Design, said painting the walls with warm colors and adding the "classic Mexican arches" to the room will change the atmosphere.
"We want people to have the full Mexican experience," Ferguson said.
The "Restaurant: Impossible" application was sent off after several customers suggested Becerra look into the process. However, now she is in the waiting game.
She received a phone call from Food Network explaining her application was a finalist submitted to Irvine for his consideration, and he makes the final say on which restaurant they help, Pullen said. They weren't given a timeframe.
"But we've started just so we don't have to wait," Pullen said. "It's just needs a facelift — a little bit of rehabilitation."
And the team isn't only looking to change the look of the restaurant — a name change is in the works, too.
"With the name the locals know it is a Mexican-American restaurant, but just from the name people from out of town don't know what's here," Pullen said.
Becerra's restaurant career started about eight years ago when she helped a couple of friends who were from out of town but owned a Mexican grocery store.
"I went in there for different tortillas and foods, things you can't really buy in a regular store," she said.
But the new grocery needed a local connection to get off the ground, and they asked Becerra to help by working Saturdays. After the store's business grew, the men asked for help again — their new endeavor would be a full Mexican restaurant.
"But I told them I didn't know anything about the restaurant business, but I sat down with them, and we started going over recipes and filling out the menu," she said.
Becerra worked with them for years and built a solid reputation with customers as a friendly and attentive waitress.
"They feel good when they come in and the waitress knows what their drink orders are going to be and in turn it makes you feel good when they come back and they don't need a menu because they already know what they want," she said.
Now, at her own place, she's come to a crossroads.
"Anyone who owns a business wants to see it progress. I want to see this place full," she said. "When you find your passion like this it makes you so excited — this is truly one of my dreams."
Becerra admits the business is easier as a waitress, because as an owner — in the beginning — everything she earns goes directly back into the restaurant. However, business hasn't been what Becerra needs to grasp a firm footing in the area.
"It's picked up a bit since the beginning, but it's not at 100 percent," she said.
Becerra hired two of her three daughters, and her oldest, Rebeca Cisneros, 23, knows the difficulties her mother has had but is proud of her for not giving up.
"You never know from day to day if we are going to be full or not, but she puts in the long hours and is here six days per week," Cisneros said. "It means a lot to be able to say she's my mom and she doesn't give up even if it does get hard at times."
Today Becerra will receive a round of chemotherapy, but the staff will continue with the overhaul.
"Carmen is a special woman — this is a huge undertaking for anyone, let alone someone who is sick," Pullen said.
After she's rested two days, the staff will unveil the renovated area to her Wednesday evening — the same concept behind the Food Network reality show.
The stress and long hours from owning her own place weigh on her mind, but Becerra says the restaurant has given her an avenue to free her mind from the cancer treatments and focus her energy into something positive.
"I am sick, but it goes away when I come in here," she said. "There are so many people who ask 'how you are doing?' and you receive so much from people you barely know in life, sometimes more than those you've known forever.
"This is my lifeline in here."
Two elderly women, for example, frequent the restaurant often, and always greet her with hugs and kisses.
"They always tell me they think about me every day," Becerra said. "That's the amazing part — when people remember the way you treated them, and they come back because you served them right.
"That's the best part — when they come back in and ask for Carmen."