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An Entrepreneurial Retiree Discovers a Culinary Passion

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An Entrepreneurial Retiree Discovers a Culinary Passion

Taqueria Bahia sits hidden away on B Street in Downtown San Rafael.

Taqueria Bahia sits hidden away on B Street in Downtown San Rafael.

Taqueria Bahia sits hidden away on B Street in Downtown San Rafael.

Taqueria Bahia sits hidden away on B Street in Downtown San Rafael.

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The pungent smell of beef and pork on the stove fills the air as I sit down to talk with Elena Alvarez, the owner of Taqueria Bahia. Ever since I began going off campus for lunch during my sophomore year, the taqueria has been a staple destination for me and my friends. However, before talking with Mrs. Alvarez, I never knew she was the owner. There was never an air of authority around her as she had taken my order dozens of times and even brought my usual super burrito with carne asada and black beans to the table. She always worked alongside her employees and not above them.  

Mrs. Alvarez greets all her customers with a warm smile almost every day of the week. She started the business in 1999 and has been at the restaurant six or seven days a week since then. To many, this may sound simply like a hard working business woman, but Mrs. Alvarez commutes to Marin every day from San Francisco and is actually supposed to be retired at the moment. She grew up in Santa Barbara and developed her work ethic and dedication by working since she was 14 years old. 

Mrs. Alvarez greets a customer and takes his order with her signature smile.

When Mrs. Alvarez retired, she had no plans to open a taqueria. However, she quickly realized that “retirement means sit at home and be a couch potato and that’s not me.” For this reason, she started looking for a place to set up shop. In her own words, she found her San Rafael location through pure “luck”.

“We came in here, it was a breakfast place before. The lady that owned it had it for 11 years. And um, we stopped and got some breakfast and we started looking around and we just figured out, hey, we can make this work, we can make this work as a taqueria, this is something like we were looking for.”

Some may think of Mrs. Alvarez as crazy to put her retirement savings into a restaurant, which is a notoriously tough investment. When I asked her about what made her successful, she immediately replied, “It’s actually I guess, not really me. It’s my whole staff, everybody.” Everyone in the restaurant is her family; she calls all the women that work for her “my girls”. On a side note, I believe her success also has something to do with her delicious homemade recipes, but she would never admit to that. Additionally, I went on to learn she grew her restaurant with her sons and daughters working alongside her but that they had eventually taken their own path.  When discussing her children I could sense a small bit of sadness in her tone but also a sense of pride similar to the way she talked about her employees in the restaurant. 

At one point I asked Mrs. Alvarez if she ever regretted opening the restaurant instead of simply just enjoying retirement. Her response was interesting as she said she does have doubts, but they are simply “just like a little flash and then you keep on going and keep on walking and taking orders.” For Mrs. Alvarez, her business had never been easy as she lost one of her two locations during the 2008 recession. She quickly emphasized to me that “It’s okay. It’s fine,”  but I could sense the hurt in her heart. She cares so deeply for her staff and business that losing such a big part of her life must have taken a toll.

From my own experience and her own words, the connections she makes and the interactions with the local community make up for any of the previously mentioned doubts and struggles. Mrs. Alvarez may seem like a quiet woman to most, but she is constantly ready to greet all her customers and is incredibly dedicated to keeping her small community thriving.

When looking back at the transcript of our interview, one line stuck with me: “I love everything. I mean, like I said, the people that come, the people that I’ve known that are not here with us anymore.” This statement exemplifies Mrs. Alvarez’s attitude toward her work. Despite her age, she always has the energy to have a conversation with anyone and if she is to busy to talk she will give you a large smile. Her attitude is infectious for her staff, creating a welcoming environment and a sense of home in her restaurant.  Here we have a woman who was not just satisfied with retirement but decided to risk her savings on starting a restaurant and building a community. Many work with the hope that they may one day retire and be happy. Mrs. Alvarez clearly finds all her happiness in her work no matter the difficulties.

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