Meet Your Merchant: Maria’s Mexican Restaurant to celebrate its 25th anniversary
June 18, 2017
Maria’s Mexican Restaurant
226 E. Main St. Grass Valley
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon. through Thurs.; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday; 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Maria’s 25th Anniversary Party will be June 24 in the parking lot of Maria’s, with children’s activities from 2 to 4 p.m. and adult festivities from 4 to 10 p.m.
Growing up in Sacramento, Maria Byers-Ramos learned early about a hard day's work. At the age of 13 she was already picking tomatoes alongside her mother in the summer valley heat.
"Back then you'd get paid a nickel for every case you filled," she said. "I saw how fast the migrant workers could fill a case and challenged myself to keep up. It helped to imagine that you were picking money."
Then Maria moved to the giant tomato harvester, where her job was to quickly pick out the green tomatoes or the ones that had gone bad. The fast-paced but monotonous work was occasionally spiced up with the appearance of a mouse or garden snake.
"My vacations were always filled with work," she said. "I never traveled or went skiing — I didn't go on a boat until I was 30."
On-the-job learning leads to opportunity
Maria married her high school sweetheart and had two children, a son and daughter. The young family moved to Visalia, where Maria got a job cleaning houses, then moved again to Nevada County for her ex-husband's job.
Having learned traditional Mexican recipes from her mother, Maria was eager to work in the restaurant business. She landed two jobs — one at Meg's Pizza Parlor in Penn Valley and another at the Lake Wildwood Country Club. Her work ethic and talent for staying focused while under pressure caught the attention of her bosses. She ended up working for the country club for the next nine years, until she learned that Raley's would be opening a Mexican kitchen. In addition to the interview itself, applicants also had to cook a meal from scratch. Maria was a shoo-in.
"Eventually my old boss wanted me to come back to Lake Wildwood Country Club to be the banquet manager," said Maria. "That was really when I learned the skills I needed to open my own business."
With the help of her father, Maria began looking for locations to open her own restaurant. She heard about a large restaurant located right downtown in Grass Valley. It was called Lindy's Giant Hamburgers.
"It was a big mess, but the location was great," she said. "Fortunately the landlord was willing to work with me — I took equity out of my house to begin fixing it up."
In 1992, Maria's Mexican Restaurant opened its doors on East Main Street, and Maria has never looked back.
Satisfying customers: a recipe for success
"My primary goal was — and always will be — to stay focused, make good food, and make people feel satisfied. People feel different when they've had a great meal cooked for them — like having your mom cook for you. Everything is made fresh from scratch daily."
While Maria's favorite meal on the go is the shrimp taco, she also has a fondness for the restaurant's signature dish — the chile relleno with ranchero sauce.
Today, Maria's is one of Grass Valley's most successful restaurants, with its 150 seats filled more often than not. On June 24, the restaurant will be celebrating its 25th anniversary with a family friendly event from 2 to 4 p.m., including a bounce house, face painting, Lazy Dog Ice Cream and balloon animals. The adult fun begins at 4 p.m. with $10 margarita tasting, street tacos, vendors and live music.
On hand will be many of Maria's 74 devoted employees, some of whom have been with the restaurant more than 20 years.
"When I started here 20 years ago I was busing tables and spoke no English," said Sonia Bautista. "Then one day Maria said, 'No more — you're ready to wait tables.' I was nervous, but she pushed me. I cried on the first day, but she believed in me."
That's who Maria is, says her daughter, Gina Ramos, who is now Maria's general manager while her mom splits her time between Maria's and Kane's Family Restaurant down the street.
"My mom is driven, passionate and unstoppable," said Gina. "Everything she does is for the community. All she's ever wanted is to provide a great place with great food. She's able to make quick decisions and stay focused under stress. I like to think I inherited that gift. She's always been my coach."
One key to the restaurant's success has been listening carefully to customers, added Gina. For example, they serve USDA choice beef, wild caught fish and organic chicken. They've also ditched the styromfoam take-out boxes for a more environmentally friendly variety. In the future, they hope to expand the catering arm of the business.
"Everything my mom does is for the community and she doesn't cut corners," said Gina. "She's always asking, 'Would the community want that?' The business has also donated thousands to nonprofits and has helped out longtime employees in times of need, such as a waitress with breast cancer who needed help with medical bills."
Today, Maria is flying high — on top of overseeing two thriving restaurants, she recently married Ray Byers, owner of Byers Enterprises, Inc. in Grass Valley.
"I'm so grateful — I thank God every day," said Maria. "When I think back to picking tomatoes with my mother and sister, I want people to know that if I can do it, anybody can."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com. Check out this week's Prospector on Thursday for details about Maria's 25th Anniversary Party taking place this Saturday.
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