Day in the Life

Antonio Valenzuela works to fill an order Friday morning in the kitchen at Mike and Ronda's The Place on E. Route 66 in Flagstaff. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

The customers coming to the eastside Mike & Ronda's arrive in such volume that they can eat through a pallet-sized portion of hash browns in a weekend.

Feeding sometimes 300 per day is a crew of cooks, waitstaff and dishwashers that arrives beginning at 4:30 a.m. to make eggs, coffee and nearly softball-sized biscuits.

Antonio Valenzuela started as a dishwasher here in the 1990s, became a cook, then a manager, and then bought the place in 2006 by taking out a loan on his home.

"I just started learning the kitchen," he said, and then payroll and everything else.

He works some 60 hours per week in helping to cook, order food, speak to customers and do paperwork.

About 30 people work year-round at the eastside restaurant on East Route 66, from the booming tourist times of summer to the slower days of winter, and some have been here 15 years.

Valenzuela enjoys cooking because it makes people happy.

Their biggest day of all is Black Friday -- that day after Thankgiving when shoppers line up in freezing, pre-dawn hours for deep discounts -- followed by major holiday weekends.

He also feels as though the restaurant is a part of the community, pitching in with donations to schools, and during emergencies like fires.

Originally a chemical engineer from Mexico who worked in petroleum refineries in Mexico City, Valenzuela came to visit his brother (who worked at Mike & Ronda's) and later moved to the United States.

He put aside his college training and patched together jobs in different diners around Flagstaff in the 1990s.

Valenzuela married Valerie in 1991, and they have raised three kids (now ages 13 to 24), and three grandkids, with the most recent grandchild arriving in mid-September.

"America is full of opportunities," he says.

He works on paperwork at home and at the restaurant, and sometimes gets a Monday off work, or time to travel with Valerie.

He worries a lot, though, about increasing food prices, inflation, school funding, taxes and restaurant patrons that barely seem to be making ends meet.

He takes stock of food supplies twice per week, for example, to avoid ordering too much and having any go to waste.

Valenzuela believes that the economy is going to weaken nationally and perhaps globally.

"I see increasing poverty," he said. "I wish I could retire. I can't say that. I think I'm going to have to work harder and harder."

He'd like to hand the restaurant over to his kids and pursue a master's degree in chemistry.

About 22 years in the same restaurant is getting to be plenty, he said.

Valenzuela would work in a refinery somewhere, turning oil to gasoline.

A touch of a smile passes his face as he describes the steps to turn oil into fuel and the chemistry he remembers from a long time ago.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at ccole@azdailysun.com or at 913-8607.

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