When Luis Diaz moved to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 1980, he never imagined he’d one day own a restaurant of his own.
Now, he owns Thelma’s Cafe in Saugus, which he runs with his wife, Thelma, and son Ronnee.
“When I came here in 1980, my uncle, who was working in the restaurant industry since the ’70s, introduced me to restaurants,” Diaz said. “I stayed at that restaurant for three years, and then I moved on to a different restaurant and stayed there for almost 20 years.”
That restaurant was Chinois On Main, which is owned by Wolfgang Puck and specializes in Asian-French fusion cuisine.
Diaz stayed in the restaurant industry from then on, working his way up to executive chef at Chinois.
Building the American dream
The couple met about a year after Thelma arrived from El Salvador.
Soon, they had kids, and Ronnee says he remembers the hustle and bustle of a large kitchen as a kid coming in to visit his dad at work at Chinois.
Diaz, who always had the goal of working for himself by the time he was 50, remembers a customer at Chinois who was a psychic.
“It’s funny. One time he told me, ‘One day, with or without Wolfgang’s help, you’re gonna have a restaurant,’” Diaz recalled. After nearly 20 years, Diaz was able to start making his new American dream a reality.
“I decided to get my own place here in Santa Clarita because a lot of people told me that Santa Clarita is going to become really big in the restaurant industry,” Diaz said.
By late 2007, Thelma’s Cafe was opening, featuring a unique breakfast menu.
With his background in fine dining, Diaz’s idea was to bring that sophistication to breakfast, with a big focus on presentation.
“He wanted to bring that Asian-French fusion style of food incorporated into the breakfast menu with American-style flair,” Ronnee said. “You won’t see many restaurants with a lobster omelet or seafood benedict, and you still have your pancakes and waffles and your omelet, but there’s a twist to them.”
When opening the restaurant, Diaz was told he’d need to survive at least two years before he could guarantee his restaurant would succeed.
“So, my whole goal was to pass those two years — that was my main thing in order to survive,” he said. “In the beginning, it was very difficult.”
Once the Great Recession hit, things got even tougher for the newly opened restaurant.
“There were days we’d make only $100 a day, so it was really hard,” Diaz said,
With a family to support, Thelma and Luis pushed on, and after the two-year mark passed, Diaz felt a sense of relief, he said.
Now, as the restaurant approaches its 13th anniversary, Diaz says the pandemic is an unprecedented challenge.
“I think it’s really worse than (the recession) because, before, we used to make (money) at least on weekends because we have a church in front of us, and they help us a lot,” Diaz said.
Two nearby churches would drive traffic on weekends, but with everything shut down, and many of the cafe’s customers typically being those who are now considered “high-risk,” business has been slow.
“We’ve noticed a significant drop-off, which makes it even more difficult to survive at this point,” Ronnee said.
Luckily, when Ronnee got involved in the restaurant four years ago, he got to work creating a website, online ordering and setting up delivery options.
“That has helped us stay really open for business, because if it wasn’t for having those things in place,” Ronnee said, “I think we’d be really behind and, really, even in a more sticky situation.”