Elsa Arellano looked downcast, stunned,in disbelief.
She was standing in the middle of Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses, the restaurant she owns with her husband Alonso Arellano and business partner, renown chef Rocio Camacho. It was mid-morning on Monday, Aug. 24, when they should have been getting ready for the busy lunch hour. But instead the place was empty. There was little left but ash and the pungent smell of smoke.
Last Sunday, Aug. 23, at around 2 a.m., someone apparently started a fire intentionally inside the restaurant, located on the 8200 block of Sunland Avenue near the corner with San Fernando Road in Sun Valley.
Selena Arellano, the owner’s daughter, and an employee at the restaurant was passing by when she saw the fire trucks.
“I was coming from a friend’s house and saw the ladders, and I told my boyfriend to stop. I ran over here. I was shaking. My whole body was trembling,” Selena recalled.
By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was raging in the kitchen area of the restaurant. Authorities said those responsible lit magazines to start the fire.
There are hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage, and every piece of restaurant equipment is destroyed. The kitchen is a blackened mess. There are holes in the walls and the roof collapsed. There is smoke damage throughout the restaurant.
Arellano said they had no insurance to cover the contents of the restaurant —only the structure was insured. Rebuilding would have to come directly out of their pockets.
“Where do you get money if you don’t have any money coming in?” Arellano asked.
While their adjacent business next door — a small factory that makes “Nopaltilla” cactus tortillas — only suffered minor damage, the income generated from that venture is not nearly enough to help them open the restaurant that provided their main source of income.
The posting on the restaurant’s Facebook page didn’t sound optimistic:
“I am sorry to inform you that last night we suffered a break-in and arson. Our kitchen was set on fire. Thanks for all your support. We don’t know when or if we can manage to open again.”
The Sun Valley eatery opened in 2012, was received with high praise by food critics and customers, and won top awards as one of LA’s best restaurants. Now, the framed newspaper and magazine reviews and awards posted on the wall are marred by water and smoke damage.
A String Of Burglaries
The restaurant had a series of burglaries at the restaurant in recent months.
Arellano said it happened three times before they had to spend money to replace windows and doors broken by the thieves.
One time they stole the safe; the next time it was $10.
Because of the break-ins, they had made the decision to hide any cash needed to open the following day and leave the cash registers open, to show the robbers there was nothing to steal.
But Selena thinks this decision may have been the reason for them to set the fire.
“They saw there was no money, they got mad and lit the fire,” she speculated.
Arson investigators have combed through the rubble looking for evidence that can lead to a suspect.
The family hopes that the security cameras inside the restaurant captured whoever did it.
“We have years invested in this and it’s sad that some miserable person does this. How can you do this to families who need work? This is terrible,” Elsa said.
“We grew up here in this restaurant,” added daughter Priscilla Arellano, who worked as a server. “I really hope they catch whoever did this.”
Luz Serrano, one of the 20 employees who came by on Monday to see if she could get her paycheck and what the future held, said that many lives have been affected. All of the employees have kids to feed.
“We’re now without work,” she said, standing outside the restaurant. “I hope they catch (the arsonist) and that they get the punishment they deserve for all that we’re suffering here.”
Serrano, who has a 15-year-old daughter, said if a solution can’t be found quickly she would have to look for another job.
“I’m responsible for her. I’m the one who provides for my house. If I don’t work, we don’t eat,” Serrano said.
She knew about the previous break-ins, and said that if what the robbers wanted was money, there was no need to burn the restaurant.
“They didn’t have to do so much damage and hurt us,” Serrano said.
As employees walked through the soot, they hugged and held back tears.
“We don’t know what we are going to do now, we are all sick with worry,” said an employee who asked not to be indentified.
A Center For The Local Community
The restaurant fire is considered a big loss to the local community.
Alonso Arellano is also a health professional who worked as a cancer researcher, and has been very active with the local community.
Combining good health with food was a mission for the restaurant. While some people discouraged him from opening in Sun Valley, it was his position that the local community deserved to have a restaurant with top of the line food.
Right off of the Interstate-5 Freeway, the restaurant had become known as a central meeting spot and brought people together from various points coming from Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
Alonso embraced a business/community and health model, and with Oaxacan Chef Rocio realized many goals including offering healthful, authentic Mexican food to customers.
Combining good health with food was Alonso’s mission. He developed tortillas made with Nopal cactus. He purchased the produce for the restaurant from the organic neighborhood garden run by Youth Speak Collective in Pacoima, where he served as a board member and they imported spices and chiles from Oaxaca to make Mole in it’s most traditional form.
The restaurant was a family affair with what became “an extended family of community members, Alonso said. After much hard work, the family restaurant was blossoming, and starting to surpass it’s goals.
It was a favorite spot for members of the Spanish-language press and local politicians, including Congressman Tony Cardenas.
“Rocio’s food was what you’d expect at the dinner table if you were visiting a family in Oaxaca,” said customer Elia Esparza. “This is such a big loss.”
A Food Truck
Supporters of the restaurant have opened a GoFundMe page, asking for donations from friends, customers and anyone else who can help the business recover.
Alonso said that he is very concerned about all of his employees.
A creative first step Arellano has come up with is to purchase a food truck that can get his employees back to work right away, and keep Rocio’s food going out to customers.
“We don’t understand why anyone would do this. We are all are in shock and feeling numb, this is very difficult, but need to get everyone back to work,” Alonso said.
“I really want our employees to begin to earn an income again, that’s my biggest concern.”
If you are interested in helping you can donate at www.GoFundMe.com/MoleOftheGods.