Sunday, November 29, 2015 • 07:59

An immigrant's journey

March 12, 2014
The year was 1973 and 17-year-old Servando Cueva, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, came across the border in San Diego without a shred of required documentation to visit his sister in the valley.

Van, as he is known to all, was indeed an illegal immigrant, although as a teen-ager he didn't think in those terms. He had been here before with his mother, at age 6, and even attended Pauma School for a month. His intention was to visit, then return to Mexico and attend college.

Van hasn't thought about going home in a very long time. Home is here, Pauma Valley, and he is a U.S. citizen now (since 1984) with his wife of 34 years, Martha, one son, one daughter and 5 grandchildren.

What started with a simple cup of coffee has led to a real American or Immigrant success story. Five acres of commercial property, with five store fronts (2 owned, 3 leased), on Hwy. 76 across from Pauma Valley Country Club all belong to Van and Martha after four decades of effort.

How it happened is quite a tale. One day in 1973 Van went into Peg Henry's Mexican restaurant on Hwy. 76 for coffee. It was a day the dishwasher didn't show up. Van, needing money, said he could do that job, and he did.

Peg Henry was enamored with Van, his work ethic and his personality. It took another 29 years but Van owns the restaurant now after serving first as the dishwater, then the breakfast cook, then the lunch/dinner cook, then a waiter, then a bartender, and then close by (next door) at the local store.

Mrs. Henry wanted badly for Van to take over the restaurant but he declined because in 1994 he bought the market next door which today is called a trading center. He was working at the restaurant when the store became available. He had some savings and the store owner was willing to carry the note. There was no effort to use bank financing.

In 2000, the land where those businesses were situated became available. By then the eager new entrepreneur Mr. Cueva decided to buy the entire five acres. However, he had a cash problem and this time he needed bank financing, something he knew absolutely nothing about.

Enter a fellow named Phil Giltner, from across the street at the country club. To this day, Van is amazed what transpired. Mr. Giltner made one phone call and the loan was secured in a day.

"For some reason everyone seems to like me," he says. "I've worked hard and saved my money, but I've had help along the way. I have what I have today because of hard work and also because Mr. Giltner liked me."

Servando Cueva befriended the right person. Mr. Giltner was a regional president of a company called Visa.

Van, who earned his nickname because Mrs. Henry could not pronounce his real first name, was now a landlord but he not own Mexican restaurant, now called El Rey, in the year 2000, although "my friend Peg had wanted me and her daughter-in-law to run it… for as long as I can remember."

The offer to buy came in 2002. Van decided why not and moved quickly once the Giltner family volunteered assistance.

There actually was a why not – namely Pauma and Harrah's casinos, plus the start of the Pala casino. That meant big time competition in the food service industry.

Van didn't flinch. He figured the casinos would help, not hurt him. He was right. Thousands more people came to the valley and Van felt they weren't going to the casinos to eat Mexican food. He also knew a Mexican eatery with ample parking was very visible on Hwy. 76.

It didn't hurt, either, to be situated across the street from a large private country club which did not serve Mexican food – or any dining three days a week.

"You work every day when you own a restaurant and market," says Van. "But I can see the finish line. I have two more years and everything I owe will be paid off. " Van is 57 now and says he is thinking about retiring – still young enough to travel and do some fun things, and to rest his weary bones. He wants to spend some time in the place in left behind long ago, Guadalajara.

However, none of what he owns is currently for sale.

"Things happen," says Van. "I've had good fortune all along the way and maybe sometime soon that certain someone will walk in here and ask me if I would like to sell my business – or in my case, businesses."

The store and the restaurant have tripled in value under his ownership and the three leased spaces are filled most of the time. The store and the restaurant are open seven days a week about 12 to 13 hours a day. He has 20 employees but still works a full day and does all the buying at both sites.

Absentee ownership never occurred to Van. Nor did passing along his enterprises to his 26-year-old son, or relatives. His son works for him but he says he wants his him to return to college "where the real opportunity is."

So when might Servando Cueva actually sell his little empire? Hard to say, but for now he isn't losing any sleep over thinking about an opportune time.

Maybe the future buyer will be someone just dropping by for a cup of coffee. It's happened before.

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