Friday, December 19, 2014

El Mezcal cooks up new plans

By MEAGAN PATTON-PAULSON, Herald Connections Editor | 3/17/2014

El Mezcal is coming back – but with a few changes, an employee said Monday.

“Different owners, different people, different everything,” Francisco Mendez, Lawrence, said, while painting some trim on the exterior of the building Monday afternoon.

El Mezcal is coming back – but with a few changes, an employee said Monday.

“Different owners, different people, different everything,” Francisco Mendez, Lawrence, said, while painting some trim on the exterior of the building Monday afternoon.

Mendez, who identified himself as an employee of David Alegria, new owner of the restaurant, was one of two employees working on the building yesterday. The other was Alonzo Hernandez, Lawrence, who said he will be the new manager of the restaurant.

Alegria did not return phone calls for comment Monday.

El Mezcal, 402 S. Main St., was unexpectedly forced to shut its doors June 14 because of a federal investigation regarding illegal immigrants. The former manager of the restaurant, Alex Sanchez Jr., later was charged with nine counts related to the harboring and employment of illegal immigrants in a federal indictment handed down by U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom’s office in Kansas City, Kan.

A re-opening date for the restaurant has not been set yet, Mendez said, but it could be serving up chimichangas and margaritas in as little as a week.

“We are waiting on our liquor license, which could be week, week and a half,” he said.

Mendez said the staff would consist of all new employees, but at least one former El Mezcal worker confirmed Monday he had been offered a job opportunity at the reopening restaurant.

‘Real nice guy’

Jose Jave, Lawrence, previously of Ottawa, said he was considering working at an El Mezcal location in Lawrence, but recently was contacted about working at the reopened Ottawa restaurant instead.

“I got the phone call last night, and was told that I was to start in a week, week and a half,” Jave said Monday.

Jave worked at the former El Mezcal for 2 1/2 years — from December 2011 to the day it was closed last June, he said.

“When I first started working there, I was a dishwasher,” Jave said. “From there I moved up to manager, and then moved up to third cook.”

Jave said he enjoyed working at the restaurant, which gave him the opportunity to further develop his Spanish-speaking skills and be around people of his heritage.

Jave wasn’t working the day authorities shut down the Mexican eatery, but his friend was, he said.

“That day, my friend went into work, and he was helping the two cooks who were working that day bring out some food [around lunchtime], and as he was walking out of the walk-in fridge, that’s when the authorities came through the door and told him to put his hands in the air. He ended up dropping some beans. I guess they were looking for illegals.”

The incident stemmed from an investigation against former manager Sanchez, a man whom Jave said always treated him fairly.

“He was a really nice guy,” Jave said. “There’s times I had a day off and wasn’t able to have it, but when we had to work extra hours, like during the [Marais des Cygnes River Run] car show weekend — that’s a pretty busy day for customers — and we wouldn’t be out of there until 11:30 [p.m.] He’d give us an extra $10 to $15 bucks for helping out. He was a real good, understanding person. When my daughter was born last year, and I had asked if I could take the day off, he said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ He was a very understanding person.”

‘Not going to lie’

However, Jave said, it was no secret to him that undocumented employees worked at El Mezcal.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “There were two people who were illegal there.”

Sanchez was given multiple opportunities by the Department of Homeland Security, according to the federal indictment, to cease employing undocumented aliens, but he continued to do so, paying them in cash and providing housing to them, knowing they were not lawfully present in the United States, the indictment asserted.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with assistance from other local and regional agencies, shut down the restaurant June 14 as part of the criminal investigation.

Sanchez eventually was charged with four counts of harboring undocumented aliens for financial gain and five counts of encouraging undocumented aliens to reside in the United States for financial gain, according to a federal indictment. Employees worked at El Mezcal and other restaurants affiliated with the defendant or Tequila, Inc., the indictment said.

Thus far, Sanchez has not been arrested or appeared in court with regard to the case, Jim Cross, public information officer for U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, said Monday.

“There really has been nothing happen since [the September 2013 indictment] because Sanchez is in the wind,” Cross said.

If arrested, Sanchez would go through the initial process of appearing in court to hear the charges, and either be released pending a trial or not, Cross said.

If convicted, Sanchez faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on each count, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But he hasn’t been caught, Cross said, and with no other employees of the restaurant charged with a crime, not much can be done at this point.

“The whole process of being tried starts with you showing up, and as long as you’re not available, there’s really not a lot of places to go, until you become available,” he said.

‘His own business’

The day after the restaurant closed, Jave said, Sanchez called him and asked Jave to help clean up the restaurant.

“We cleaned up the kitchen, the walk-in fridge,” Jave said. “We were cleaning up a lot of stuff.”

Authorities had seized all the employee time cards, Jave said, so Sanchez asked him to write down his hours for the previous two weeks, and a paycheck would be mailed to him, which it was.

Even after the charges against Sanchez became public, Jave said, he didn’t think any differently about his former employer.

“What he did, that’s his own business,” Jave said. “I don’t look at him wrong for it. Any father, any husband is going to do anything to take care of their family and make their family’s dreams come true, whether they have to do it the right way or somewhat tweak it a little bit. The things he has on him, that’s his own. I’m not going to judge nobody.”

Jave said he’s heard some talk from locals who think reopening with the same name, given El Mezcal’s history, might be a bad idea. But he disagrees.

“Honestly, I like it being ‘El Mezcal,’ because I like El Mezcal,” he said. “It was my second home.”

Jave said he’s also looking forward to going back to work.

“I’m excited to be there when it first opens up, because I miss cooking,” he said.

‘Come eat here’

Mendez said Monday was the first day the new management had been working on the building. He did not say when the sale of the property had occurred, or if the building was being rented.

The property was appraised this year at $250,010, which is slightly down from last year’s appraisal of $254,220, according to the Franklin County Appraiser’s website. This year’s appraisal valuation notice was sent to the same owner that was listed on the indictment, Tequila, Inc., according to the website.

Not everything will be different about the reopened eatery, Hernandez said. The name, El Mezcal, will stay the same, as will its interior decorations and menu. The patio also will remain open to customers who want to enjoy the outside elements, Hernandez said.

Hernandez didn’t know exactly how many employees the business would hire, he said, but estimated that number to be eight or nine.

The menu will remain mostly unchanged from its offerings, because that seemed to be what the people of Ottawa wanted and missed when the former restaurant closed its doors, he said.

“People should come eat here,” Hernandez said. “It’s really good food, really good service.”

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