The year was 1979 and the Sandanistas were taking hold of Matagalpa, a Nicaraguan city of 150,000 nestled in the mountains a couple of hours north of the capital of Managua. Demonstrations were a daily occurrence and a wave of fear swept the Central American nation amid political uncertainty.
It was this atmosphere that compelled Ivania Palacios and her husband, Rolando, to leave their homeland for the hope of a more secure life in the United States. The couple and their three young daughters were about to start life anew, leaving behind a land in upheaval, with an estimated 50,000 war dead.
It did not take long for the industrious couple to start over. The idea was to start a restaurant and, just three months after landing in San Francisco, an opportunity was seized with the closure of a Salvadorean eatery at Mission and 24th streets. The rent: $375 a month for a small space with five tables on the Thanksgiving Day, 1979 opening of El Trebol Restaurant.
“Customers had to go through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. Rolando and I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. We were determined to make our business work. We never had any employees–it was just the two of us, ” explains Ivania.
Rolando cooked. He ordered supplies.
Ivania handled the money. She served the food Rolando painstakingly prepared over the course of ten hours.
They both cleaned up after their business closed each night at 9pm.
For retention of the former eatery’s clients, some items from the former menu were kept, such as pupusas, now complemented by the Nicaraguan dishes Ivania remembered from back home. El Trebol’s air was redolent of the sweet scent of fried plantains, with hearty cups of black bean soup a usual accompaniment to most meals.
El Trebol soon had a loyal following, with everyone from Latinos to groups of cops making the Mission restaurant their haunt. When the hair salon next door shuttered its doors, the Palacios annexed the space so that they could then serve up to 50 patrons at a time.
“Our customer base steadily increased. People who came to El Trebol with their parents later brought in their own children. My customers were like family. They would come in and tell me their problems. I became like their therapist,” chuckles Ivania.
There were some neighborhood challenges. For a period of time, drug dealers sold their goods in front of El Trebol. Ivania made sure they kept their business outside. The upside was that after smoking marijuana, these became customers with hearty appetites, so they were actually good for Ivania’s bottom line.
In 2013, with rent having increased to $4,500 per month and 34 years of business behind them, Ivania and Rolando retired.
While the success of El Trebol had enabled the Palacios to buy a home in Pacifica years ago, Ivania can still often be seen on the streets of the Mission.
You may see her listening to someone’s problem, still acting as their therapist. You may see her at the same Mission Street bank to which she has gone for decades. She may be buying a few plantains at a local market, chatting with the shopkeeper.
“The Mission will always be home,” sums up a beaming Ivania.