‘Cooking in his blood': Restaurateur led full life

July 22, 2001|By LAURA MACKENZIE, Staff Writer

A beloved El Centro resident and restaurateur with a "rags to riches" story died Monday of liver failure in University of California San Diego Medical Center.

Ramiro Camacho, owner of La Fonda restaurant in El Centro, started in the restaurant business early in life.

Born and raised in Mexico, he was interested in the restaurant business at an early age, dropping out of school to help his mother run a tortillaria (a tortilla factory and store) in Mexicali.

"His dad was a cook and I guess he got cooking in his blood from his dad. He always wanted to do the same thing," said his son, Antonio Camacho.

At age 16, Ramiro Camacho, who only had a second-grade education, came to the United States as a "guest worker" to work as a cook for the labor camps in California.


He worked as a kitchen helper at La Hacienda restaurant and later as a cook at La Paloma restaurant before buying La Fonda.

"He wanted to do it on his own," said Antonio Camacho. "He's always loved the kitchen and the food business."

Camacho was in high school when his parents opened La Fonda in 1980.

"The risk they had to take, I look back and think, ‘That's a lot of guts,' " said Camacho.

Camacho, who said his father instilled a strong work ethic in him, remembers waking up at 5 a.m. to help his dad mow lawns, a side business to help make ends meet.

"He put me through the regimen," said Camacho, who also worked in the restaurant with his sisters.

"He showed me how to work for something, and, to never be without money this is how you earn it," Camacho added.

It is a sentiment echoed by his sisters, Claudia Ruiz and Martha Sanchez.

"He taught me to never quit; just work hard if you want more," said Ruiz.

Ruiz and her husband, Hector, are running La Fonda, now on Broadway in downtown El Centro, while Sanchez operates the La Fonda 2 restaurant in El Centro.

Sanchez' husband is a cook at La Fonda, while her mother, Camacho's ex-wife, is a cook at La Fonda 2.

Both daughters plan to keep the businesses open.

"We want to continue in his work and his restaurant. That's what he would have wanted," said Ruiz.

Camacho, who works as a technician for Xerox, is considering "retiring early" to help his sisters run the restaurants.

Son-in-law Hector Ruiz said of Camacho, "He was a boss, but he was more like a friend. He wanted to treat everyone good."

"He was very giving, very easy to get along with."

The restaurant's regular customers offered their condolences to the family Friday.

Pat Yarnall, whose family has been eating at La Fonda since it opened at the old Adams Avenue location, said she will remember Camacho's "attention to the customers."

"He used to come and see if they liked the food. He was always happy and always spoke to you," said Yarnall.

Added her lunch partner, Debbie Witt, "He was always very friendly and he knew his customers by name. Even when he was out in the community, he would speak to you."

Eleanor Barraza, who eats at the restaurant at least twice a week, said she will remember Camacho for making her special dishes if she didn't like what was on the menu.

"Many times he would just make me a special dish," she said.

She followed Camacho to the current La Fonda location from Adams Avenue.

"I didn't know he was sick, and I never wanted to ask," she said, adding, "I'll miss him very much."

Barraza said, "He left his children with good values and prepared to take over the business. His memory will continue just by it being here."

His children remember Camacho as a "hands-on" owner, one who refused to let delivery trucks bring him his fruits and vegetables.

Family also remember his pranks and jokes, that he was always laughing and that he liked to dance.

"He was very happy; just happy to be at the restaurant," said Ruiz.

She added, "He used to say, ‘When I die, I want a big smile,' because he wanted everyone to remember him happy, with a smiley face."

Added Sanchez, "Dad's always laughing and being a jokester."

They remember the concoctions he would cook up in his head, such as "Mexican lasagna,' and "Mexican spaghetti."

"His form of rest was to be in the restaurant," said Sanchez.

His son said, "His ideas for recipes would come to him in his sleep."

He added, "His goals were accomplished. His responsibility was to provide for us and he never wanted us to work for somebody."

Antonio Camacho's wife, Amy, remembered her father-in-law: "He just had the biggest heart."

She said, "I was born and raised in Kentucky and moved out here and he just embraced me. I speak Spanish now and its because of them, my in-laws."

Sanchez said the family has been "overwhelmed" by the support they've received.

Added Camacho, "Just by their acknowledgment and by being here and saying, ‘I knew your dad,' it means a lot."

He continued, "We really appreciate the response from the Imperial Valley."

Staff Writer Laura MacKenzie can be reached at 337-3442.

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