By John Rice
Mom's Place embodies the spirit of family and down home cooking. The restaurant at 819 South Harlem is a family business in every sense. The owner, Juan Ruiz, prepares American cuisine, while his wife, Valentina, cooks Mexican dishes from scratch.
Their daughters, Rosie, Mimi and Reyna, serve customers, run the cash register and promote the restaurant on social media. Judging from online comments, customers enjoy the family feel as much as they savor the food.
It all started with Juan, who came to the U.S. from a small village in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1991. He had only completed two years of school and didn't speak English. He learned the language by reading newspapers and spent 20 years cooking for Mother's Day Restaurant, in Berwyn.
In 2006, he heard that Mom's Place needed a cook. Juan met the owner, George, who jumped to the conclusion that Juan didn't know how to cook. George later regretted his words and invited Juan back for an audition. After preparing his first dish, Juan was hired.
Six months later, George offered to sell him the restaurant. When Juan told his family about the restaurant he planned to buy, Rosie assumed it was a small taqueria. She was pleasantly surprised to find a full-sized restaurant, with ample seating and parking.
Juan said it was originally called Tom's Restaurant. The Skoufis family had built the eatery, along with the house next door. They operated it for 32 years. Tom's was known for its takeout food, but Juan wanted to make Mom's Place a full-service restaurant.
For three years, he opened from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., serving steaks and seafood to the dinner crowd. His prices were so low, though, he wasn't making a profit. Plus, he lacked a liquor license. So, he focused on breakfast and lunch.
Now, Juan works every day from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., preparing skillets, steaks and hamburgers, while Valentina makes rice and beans and fresh salsa. Her specialties include caldo de pollo, menudo and flan for dessert. Mom's Place is popular with the breakfast crowd. They also attract a loyal following for lunch.
Juan works seven days a week. Christmas is the only day he closes, but one year he couldn't stay away. On Christmas morning, he found the restaurant flooded by a broken pipe. He prevented further damage by sweeping out the water. Juan is hoping to buy the building someday and make some upgrades. He would also like to repave the parking lot. In the meantime, his family finally persuaded him to take a week off this summer.
Even when they aren't working together, Juan's family is close-knit. Three years ago, they sold their individual houses and purchased a three-flat in Berwyn. Juan and Valentina are surrounded by children and grandchildren. Their grandkids call them "Apa" and "Ama."
Rosie said they have recreated the living situation the family enjoyed in Zacatecas. The cousins are like brothers and sisters. She admires her father so much. After a full day's work, Juan still has the energy to cook for his family and take them to parks and pools.
Rosie said their customers have also become part of their extended family. They get a kick out of seeing the babies grow up into workers, like Juan Jr. They feel good about supporting a family business. There are many such businesses in Forest Park.
There is also one of the oldest family businesses in Illinois, just across Harlem Avenue. H.J. Mohr & Sons has recently shut down. Juan misses the workers but, if the site is developed, Mom's Place will be busier than ever.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com