Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, Mi Zacatecas, Cecilia Chairez’s tiny Mexican restaurant, was one of the Oakland’s dining scene’s great success stories. The only spot in the Bay Area specializing in the cuisine of the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, the restaurant had amassed a large and loyal following, despite its remote location in deep East Oakland, entirely on the merits of Chairez’s homestyle cooking: her slow-cooked stews, her enormous handmade tortillas, and, especially, her fat, freshly griddled gorditas — widely hailed as the best in the city.
These days, like so many restaurant owners across the Bay Area, Chairez has closed Mi Zacatecas for the time being. No longer slinging gorditas for the masses, she’s turned to her skills as a seamstress to help make ends meet, sewing and selling hundreds of what everybody seems to be in need of right now: face masks.
“It’s a process,” Chairez tells Eater SF of her transition from making a living with a flat-top grill to one that depends on her skill with a sewing machine. “It’s not simple, like doing a burrito.”
This spring was supposed to be the next big step for Mi Zacatecas, as the restaurant was slated to move into a larger new location sometime in March, allowing Chairez to expand both her hours and her menu. But March, of course, was when the whole restaurant landscape got turned upside down, and Chairez was caught in limbo when the shelter-in-place order came down: She’d already left her old location at the beginning of January, but the new spot still needed a few finishing touches — its hood needed to be installed, and it needed to pass its final inspection. Suddenly, though, the company that was supposed to install the hood wasn’t allowed to send workers out, and so Chairez was stuck. She couldn’t even open to do takeout if she wanted to.
Just as things were starting to get desperate, Chairez says, her sister, who works as a seamstress, came to her with a proposal: She had a great design for reusable, 100-percent cotton face masks and access to fabric suppliers in LA, but she’d recently lost her shop, and she didn’t have Chairez’s wide network of contacts. How would she like to team up?
Chairez explains that she was confident enough in her sewing skills — “I worked in a bridal shop for a couple of years” — and so, just like that, she set up a little sewing workshop in the spare bedroom of her San Leandro home, put the word out to all her Mi Zacatecas contacts via email and social media, and started cranking out face masks.
All told, Chairez says she’s made and sold about 900 of them in the past month at $10 a pop ($5 for kid-sized masks), even filling a large order for a hospital in Mountain View. Customers say the masks are really comfortable, she says. (Those interested in buying one can reach out to Chairez at firstname.lastname@example.org.) And in a time when she’s been without her regular restaurant income for nearly four months, that bit of extra income has been her salvation. “We have to be grateful,” she says. “How many people are in a really bad situation right now? We can pay our rent. We can pay our bills.”
As for Mi Zacatecas, she says she’s hopeful that the company installing her hood will be able to start working again in the coming weeks, depending on what changes, if any, are made to the shelter-in-place guidelines later this week. Even under the best circumstances, the new location — at 6633 Bancroft Avenue — won’t open any earlier than three or four weeks from now, even just for takeout.
Still, Chairez says, “I’ve been saying, ‘thank you, God’ that this happened before I opened.” Whenever the restaurant is able to open again, she says she’s glad that it’ll be with a clean slate.