After almost 30 years of reciting nightly specials to someone else’s customers, South Philadelphia native Sam Solomone wanted his own restaurant. He had worked as the head waiter at Pennsport’s Caffe Valentino since 2009, and had the chance to buy the place around the holidays.
He was ready for the challenge.
Not far away, in the Italian Market, Ignacio Flores had the same idea. Except he had come from Veracruz in Mexico and worked most recently as a baker in North Philadelphia when his opportunity came.
Both were having good starts in their new endeavors — until the coronavirus pandemic shattered the economy like a glass of red wine falling off a table.
“Three months ago, I wanted to be my own boss,” Flores said. “But I would never imagine that something like this would happen.”
Flores says his molcajetes in their hot-lava stone bowl are the most popular dish at his restaurant, Solomone wants you to try the branzino, a Mediterranean fish that he will filet table-side with surgical precision. But there are no molcajetes or branzinos these days, only worry.
There are bills to be paid, rent to be met, employees to (hopefully) retain.
“It’s pretty stressful, I have to admit.” said Solomone, 44, a 1994 graduate of what was then St. John Neumann High. "A lot of people are going through the same thing. But I just started. Mentally, this will make me stronger. Financially, well… "
He didn’t finish the sentence because he didn’t need to. But a funny thing is happening at the 50-seat establishment tucked on the corner of Third and Wharton. The restaurant has gone digital, enlisting the popular delivery services and an Instagram page set up by Solomone’s 13-year-old daughter, Nadia.
“I’m trying every which route to survive,” Solomone said. "All I have is pickups and deliveries. I think people want deliveries of cheesesteaks, sandwiches, pizzas, that kind of stuff. When it comes to [fine dining], people don’t want to spend $20 to $25 on a dish. Especially now that people are pinching their money.”
“I had a party [booked] for a 50th wedding anniversary for the parents of a friend of mine,” he added. “He can’t do it, now. Let’s just say if they re-open things [tomorrow], he doesn’t want to jeopardize his parents by bringing them outside. They’re 80-something-years-old.”
On Sunday, Solomone delivered a caprese salad and veal carciofi, an order that came in through Nadia’s work on social media. The young teenager stays upbeat despite the fact that her eighth-grade class trip to Baltimore is on the verge of being canceled.
“She’s getting engaged in things,” Solomone said. “She wants to take orders. She wants to start answering the phone soon.”
Meanwhile, Marco the pizza-maker spins dough in the background. A phone order from Girard Estates, which is on the other side of South Philly, has just come in.
Flores’ place is the third Los Taquitos de Puebla location, and the first outside Delaware. The new franchise is just steps from the cheese-fries window of Geno’s Steaks, at the south end of an Italian Market that is deserted these days.
The only noise on Monday was the sound of rain hitting the empty sidewalks.
“This weekend was dead. Nobody’s coming now, just deliveries,” Flores, 43, said through a translator. “Five or six orders all day. Normally, it would be too many to count. I used to have two cooks. I would help out in the kitchen. But now, I’m the cook, I’m doing deliveries. I’m doing everything.”
If you like Mexican, the menu is terrific. Put this place on the bucket list for when self-isolation turns to self-indulgence.
Flores said the turnabout in his fortunes has stunned him. “I have the urge to cry, but crying doesn’t solve anything,” he said.
So he stood up, adjusted his anti-viral mask, and headed back into the kitchen determined to ride this out.
“If [creditors] understand when it comes to paying the rent, paying the bills, I could probably survive,” he said. “For now.”
Flores had to lay off five of his workers. Solomone is doing everything he can to keep the four that he has. He’s still paying the cooks, and giving whatever tip money comes in to the waiter.
The one piece of encouragement Solomone has received the last two weeks has been from the people he has spent his whole life trying to serve.
“The customers have been great,” he said. “They have sympathy for us. They feel bad that we’re not doing any business in-house. It’s funny. The people who’ve been doing takeout the last couple of days have been leaving bigger tips.”
The woman from Girard Estates who ordered the pizzas the other day waited in her car for her order to be brought out in observance of the state orders against customers waiting inside the restaurant. She put a $20 gratuity on her windshield.
Los Taquitos De Puebla
1201 S. Ninth St. (Ninth & Wharton)
Philadelphia, Pa., 19147
1245 S. Third St. (Third & Wharton)
Philadelphia, Pa., 19147