After a 14-year run, Mom’s Place, 819 Harlem Ave., closed their doors on Dec. 13. The owner, Juan Ruiz, had fought valiantly to keep the eatery open during the pandemic, but he was losing money as well as his time. His wife, Valentina, and his daughter, Rosie, who both worked at the restaurant, thought it was time to shut down.

Mom’s Place had been a thriving family restaurant before COVID-19 struck in March and forced them to close for four months. They re-opened in June selling food-to-go. Finally, the village allowed them to have limited seating for patrons. The restaurant had a capacity of 89, but they never allowed more than 35 customers at a time.

During this time, Ruiz applied for government loans on multiple occasions. He needed a $45,000 loan to stay afloat but only qualified for a $5,000 loan. He and his wife used stimulus checks to pay bills, but Valentina ended up leaving the restaurant to work for a bakery in Summit. She literally became the breadwinner for the family.

Ruiz had been a good provider when the restaurant was busy. He started working there as a cook in 2006, when it was called Tom’s Place. He purchased the business from the Skoufis family and started putting in 12-hour days serving steaks and seafood to the dinner crowd. This was not profitable, so he switched the focus to breakfast and lunch.

The restaurant’s homemade Mexican dishes attracted a loyal following. Customers became part of their extended family. Ruiz said he will miss the good customers he saw on a daily basis. He hopes another restaurant will take its place and has three potential buyers who are interested in the business. If none of these deals go through, he plans to sell the restaurant’s equipment on a piecemeal basis.

Ruiz is 63, too young to retire. He still feels strong enough to work. This is a man who didn’t take a day off in 14 years, with the exception of Christmas Day. The restaurant was a home away from home, where he spent half of each day. He plans to land another job, but nothing is definite until he sells the restaurant.

In the meantime, Ruiz is surrounded by his family. They have a large three-flat in Berwyn, occupied by his kids and grandkids.

“At home they love me a lot,” Ruiz said. “I don’t know why.” They also assure him that closing the restaurant will relieve him of stress and worries. “We don’t have a lot of money but we’re happy and we have our health.” 

Mom’s Place is displaying two simple signs on the front door for their Forest Park customers: “Goodbye” and “Thank You.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.