From Steel to Salsa - Nebraska Couple Open Mexican Family Restaurant in Gering, Nebraska

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When asked why he left a 30+ year career in the steel industry to open Chino’s Mexican Restaurant in Gering, Nebraska, Ed Bartella had a quick answer: “I’d been doing the same thing for an awful long time.” Ed and his wife Christina are no strangers to being entrepreneurs – Christina owns and runs a Service Master franchise in northwest Nebraska. They also are no strangers to being in the kitchen – they have a large extended family and enjoy cooking for them regularly. Word of their culinary talents got around to a local steak house restaurant in their community of Gering, Nebraska, and they were asked to cater a Christmas party – and asked to specifically cater dishes outside of the restaurant’s normal meat and potatoes fare. Ed and his wife cooked up enchiladas, rice and beans and homemade tortillas for more than 200 people.  Their food was such a hit that they were asked to cater there again the following year.

For Ed, starting a restaurant seemed to be almost pre-destined. In 2018 his father experienced health issues and was discussing the intentions for his will with Ed. His father said that Ed was going to come into some inheritance and asked what he was going to do with it. Ed’s immediate answer was that he wanted to open a restaurant. Sadly, his father passed. Two days later, Ed had a call from the manager of a local mall who had heard about Ed’s catering, and asked if he would like to serve food at the mall’s food court because there was a space available. “That was overwhelming,” Ed said. “But I started to reflect on the story and it just seemed like it was meant to be. [My wife] and I jumped in with both feet and had a successful year. We started in November of 2018, the Monday after Thanksgiving. For the Christmas season that year we did well, and we had a pretty good 2019.”  But during the Christmas season of that year, they started wondering what was coming next. Sales were slowing down – and then they noticed a vacant Pizza Hut restaurant in the area and thought about making the transition to a brick and mortar restaurant. “We talked about if we could handle a structure that big since we are such a small operation – could we handle a venue like that?” But again, it seemed like it was meant to be.  They received word that the owner was interested in leasing the building, especially to a small family restaurant, and made a handshake deal on March 5th, 2020.  Then, only a few days later, COVID-19 hit the area. “Everyone was panicking. We’d been bitten by COVID-19 from the very start. Money had already changed hands, so there was no turning back. All of 2020 we were closed while we were working on getting financing,” Ed said.  They turned to Spencer Rien from the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC), a resource partner of the SBA, for assistance. “[Spencer] helped me out very much with the operation. He has more to do with getting the doors open than I do. Spencer helped me set up everything I had to do on the computer, all of the spreadsheets on how the inventory would work, and how we would anticipate sales. After we did the spreadsheet and all the numbers, they looked pretty overwhelming and astonishing, but after being open for the first month I could tell the numbers were accurate. Spencer taught me how to manage my inventory, manage payroll, how to project expenses and budget. I’m not a manager of money, I just know how to make pork chili and enchiladas.”

The Nebraska Business Development Center wasn’t the only source of assistance for Ed and Christina. He also sought help from Michelle Coolidge, the Director of Twin City Development in Scottsbluff, to get an LB840 grant. This process took all summer of 2020, and finally in November 2020 we were ready to move forward with moving the business from the mall into the leased restaurant. The inside of the restaurant needed some work, however. Ed credits his friends and family for their extensive help with the renovations. “All the work that was done inside – the new hood, plumbing, electrical system; everything that was done was done by local people. Friends and family that volunteered their time to help with this endeavor. They did it because they care about me. My brother Joe came down from Iowa and stayed over the winter to help me with the inside remodel. My friend Travis helped an awful lot, and my other friend Zach and his dad, Stan, they spent a lot of time on their hands and knees helping [with the remodel] too.  Other people who do things on the side for me – people that help on weekends and whatnot, everything that everyone has done has all been local and friendly and it’s so much appreciated. And of course, my family has helped me all along the way.”

Ed was also able to use a Paycheck Protection Program Loan available under the CARES Act to keep his kitchen manager on the payroll while the restaurant was being remodeled. With all of this assistance, Chino’s Mexican Restaurant opened its doors on April 7th, 2021, despite being in the middle of a pandemic. “Since then, it’s been 7 days a week. It’s been overwhelming and we work our tails off. I think we have a product that people want,” Ed said. “2020 was a lot of sleepless nights, wondering if this was ever going to happen. Now that the doors are open, and we have a great reputation, things seem to be running smoothly.” Despite some glitches in July due to extreme weather, the summer has been busy with events like car shows, Oregon Trails Days, and other such happenings. “I’ve seen lots of faces, different license plates in the parking lot – and that’s a good thing! We have people from all over the US – and all of them having something nice to say on their way out of the front door.”

Ed isn’t sure what the next few months will bring as America is still dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. But he’s focusing on the short term – working on lunch specials for high school students now going back to school and taking care of his ever-growing group of regulars. It’s also not hard to focus on growing the business; Ed says, “Friends, patience and plenty of blessings – we go through it all, and it’s just been a windstorm since Apri!.”

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.