STOCKTON, Calif. — As downtown Stockton worker Steve Dial walks from his office to his favorite restaurant, Irma’s Place, he doesn’t know which dish to order yet, but he already knows to expect the warm hospitality of the restaurant’s owner, Irma Gutierrez.
“It's nice first thing in the morning... you get out of the car, walk across the street and be greeted with a big ‘Buenos dias’ from Irma,” Dial said. “Knowing that the owner is back there in the kitchen taking care of you is outstanding.”
The warm hospitality has been a staple of the Weber Avenue business as Gutierrez works 10-hour shifts nearly every day. Now, Dial and other customers are fundraising to close their favorite restaurant for a week and allow Gutierrez to take a vacation.
“Irma has made it through all of these obstacles and continues to be here. She needs a break and deserves it," Dial said. “It's almost impossible for her to save enough money to do that on her own so I thought maybe we can do some crowdfunding and get her a nice vacation.”
Gutierrez has called the restaurant on Weber Avenue home since 1974. Years turned into decades, and Gutierrez eventually became the owner in 1992.
“When I started, I was nervous. I didn’t know (how) I was going to do it and it’s already (been) 30 years now,” said Gutierrez. “It’s hard to be in business but I’m glad I keep going and I love this place, I love being with the people making (them) happy.”
Owning the restaurant means guiding it through global hardships like the recession, the COVID pandemic, and the current nationwide staffing shortage. Despite the challenges, the 70-year-old shows up to work at 7 a.m. every day and doesn’t leave until the last dishes are cleaned, even on the toughest days.
“This year has been hard but we’re still here,” Gutierrez said.
In March, amid the start of a staffing shortage, Gutierrez’s husband Mario died.
“Watching her go through that trauma was so disheartening,” Dial said. “After the funeral, she would be down here just kind of walking around in a daze because Mario used to sit in the booth in the back and be supportive of her.”
Dial and Gutierrez talk about their lives often while at the restaurant. One day, Dial let his favorite waitress know he wouldn't be in for a week due to a planned vacation.
“I take my family on vacations and I'll tell her that I'm not going to be in. She goes, ‘What are you going to be doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, we're going on vacation,’” Dial said. “And you can kind of see the gleam, the little, ‘I would like to do that someday,’ sort of deal.”
The gleam in her eyes gave Dial an idea: to fundraise for Irma to take a much-needed vacation. While Mexico City, Miami, New York or Hawaii are all ideas, any location will work.
“I want to go all over, the only thing is I don’t go nowhere,” Gutierrez said while laughing.
With the help of her own loyal customers like Dial and other online donors through a GoFundMe page, her unfulfilled wish to travel to see more of the world might soon change.
“I feel so happy, I feel really good when people like Steve do things for me,” Gutierrez said. “I love it.”
For now, Gutierrez says she will keep focused on doing what she loves the most.
“In the morning, it’s hard for me,” Gutierrez admitted. “But when I get here, it’s different because I really want to open the door and say, ‘Okay, I’m here, I want to do the best I can.’”
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