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El Pelon workers close painful chapter with return to Fenway

Posted by Roy Greene  December 23, 2011 12:27 PM

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(Boston.com photo by Kade Krichko)


Jose "Poello" Torres (second from right), with the rest of the El Pelon staff at their newly reopened location in Fenway's restaurant row.

Burn. Rebuild. Repeat. Not the most enviable business model.

Unfortunately, that has been the harsh reality for Jose “Poello” Torres, Anna Linck and the rest of the employees of El Pelon Taqueria, who lost their restaurant to fire -- not once, but twice in as many years spanning back to late 2007.

The last of the fires forced the workers to leave the Fenway neighborhood, their home for over a decade, and re-open in Brighton. But instead of splintering the business, the fires and consequent move brought the employees of El Pelon closer together, they say.
In October, El Pelon was able to close a painful chapter in its history and reopen in the community that first embraced the flavorful Mexican joint.

“Everyone is happy to be back,” said Torres, manager at El Pelon. “Everybody loves the restaurant around this area. The clients remember us.”

For Torres in particular, the journey has been long, and the homecoming bittersweet. An employee at El Pelon for almost seven years, he was there for the first fire, in December of 2007, and also for the next blaze, an electrical fire in January 2009 that claimed an entire block of restaurants on Peterborough Street.

“The night before [the fire], we stayed up to prepare food for the next day,” recalled Torres, a native of Mexico. “The next morning, we wake up with the news that the whole block is on fire. We couldn’t believe it. You should have seen the sad faces.”

In all, six restaurants were destroyed in the winter inferno. The block suffered more than $5 million in damages, and the businesses were forced to move or pack up for good.

“We had a regular following, a great crowd,” said Anna Linck, a Northeastern University student who worked the register in the weeks leading up to the fire. “It was really sad to see that totally be undone in an instant.”

El Pelon let go of its property on Peterborough Street after the second blaze -- but the employees never let go of the idea of returning to the spot. After construction finished in the spring of 2011, owner Jim Hoben and his team signed a new lease at the same location and went to work readying the renovated shop for business.

There were months of ironing out details and getting the new restaurant up to code, but El Pelon finally reopened its doors quietly in early November.

Though the opening wasn’t heavily publicized, word spread fast. Within days, customers, new and old, stretched in lines out the door.

“People know Fenway,” Linck said. “Most people walk to it, it’s easy to find, and it offers a hangout spot, rather than just a place to get food.”

In the interim, while the Fenway location was unusable, Hoben scrambled to find a new location for the restaurant and its staff, settling on a Brighton spot, right off the Boston College T-stop. Just over a year after the 2009 fire, El Pelon was back in operation again, after a hiatus in which many employees had lost their only jobs and had to survive on limited pay.

“Some of our co-workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador had their primary source of income wiped out,” said Linck. “It was devastating. I can’t even imagine what it was like for them.”

For Torres, it meant taking a second job as a roofer, a position he continued to work for a few months after the Brighton location opened. Some employees took jobs at other restaurants, while others were forced to move, according to Torres.

Those struggles made the Brighton restaurant, which opened in March of 2010, a beacon for the original El Pelon employees, who began the slow process of rebuilding in a new location. Linck said Hoben worked hard to provide enough hours to keep his remaining employees afloat after the disaster at Fenway.

That support system helped the taqueria workers forge stronger relationships and move forward as a group.

“These guys are my friends,” said Torres. “Sure, I’m their manager, but we’re friends. I didn’t want to see anyone leave.”

The employees who stayed with El Pelon continued to grow closer by keeping some of their old traditions, while adding new ones.

For instance, El Pelon brought its annual “Fiery Fifteen”- a chili pepper eating contest that originated at the Fenway location - to Brighton, pitting 25 of the strongest stomachs against each other in the spring of 2011. The event generated a lot of interest from area college students.

Linck, with help from her co-workers and the backing of Hoben, also started an organic garden in the back of the restaurant building.

“I thought it was important for us to know where our food was coming from,” explained Linck, who also works at Groundwork Somerville, a non-profit dedicated to promoting healthy education.

But even as the El Pelon family grew tighter in Brighton, the employees' goal was always to return to Fenway. “There was a general feeling that we’ve been stopped twice, but we need to do this. We need to be open" in Fenway, said Linck.

Torres was so invested in the Fenway location that he moved to the neighborhood a year ago, in anticipation of El Pelon’s rebirth.

“It was the first place,” said Torres. “[After I moved], I could see clients going by the place waiting for it to open. I knew it would be good to be back.”

So far it has been good, according to employees. El Pelon still maintains both of its locations, and the return to Fenway has been well-received, Torres said. Some of the other restaurants on the block are returning, as well -- something El Pelon hopes will have the restaurant row hopping again.

But for now, the employees of El Pelon are just happy to be home.

“I’ve seen us grow. We’ve become more of a community through all of this,” Linck said. “The dedication and initial spirit of Fenway carried us through it all."

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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