It was just a swab in the back of her nose, but Claudia Gutierrez won’t soon forget the exact date she got tested for COVID-19.
May 28. Only hours after an overnight break-in of her Minneapolis restaurant Hamburguesas El Gordo. After $11,000 in cash — earmarked for employee wages — vanished with the safe that contained it. After E. Lake Street, two miles away from her Mexican burger spot but still too close, erupted in flames in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
For Gutierrez, the Minneapolis riots and COVID-19 are inextricably linked. As she took in the damage to a business that had already been reshaped by the pandemic — with plans for an expansion to St. Paul put on hold — she was also contending with an infection that would spread in her home and wallop her energy for weeks.
Months later, Gutierrez, her husband Gerardo and their five children ages 4 through 16 are “feeling great.” After a three-week closing, the Minneapolis restaurant’s takeout business is doing better than ever. An online fundraiser started by fans of the beloved Del Gordo burgers replaced some of the stolen cash. And the new St. Paul outlet is officially on track for opening soon.
But the concurrence of events that have defined Gutierrez’s 2020 — dining room shutdowns, a break-in, a frightful illness — have all left their mark.
“Honestly, you learn every day,” Gutierrez said, looking back on the past few months. “To me, personally, it reminded me that I’m still a human. I’m still a mom. I’m still a wife. And I need to take care of those aspects of my life, too, because I kind of forgot.”
Gutierrez was 15 when she moved to Minnesota from northern Mexico. She grew up across the border from Brownsville, Texas, in the state of Tamaulipas.
America’s influence crept across the border into the food served in her home state. Hot dogs, fries and charro (cowboy) beans were typical street fare. Best of all were the burgers, piled high with ham and bacon, various cheeses, avocado and peppers, and all the condiments.
“Most of the places you’re going to buy burgers in Mexico, that’s how they serve them,” Gutierrez said. At her home on Payne Avenue in St. Paul, burgers in the northern Mexican style were often on the menu for family gatherings and holidays.
In May 2015, Gutierrez and her husband were thinking of starting a side hustle, something to supplement their jobs in payroll and at a warehouse, respectively.
They began selling the burgers one night a week. There might have been chorizo or a fried egg or grilled pineapple on top. Always, she said, “they were huge.” They were wildly popular, too.
“A lot of people were showing up at our house and we would run out of inventory every night,” she said.
They added another night, and another, until the owner of a St. Paul strip mall offered them a spot. A week after going brick and mortar, in October 2015, they both quit their day jobs.
“It completely changed our lives, going from stable good jobs, stable income, to the unknown,” Gutierrez said.
It seemed they’d cornered the market on Mexican burgers. “There was something missing, and we saw an opportunity,” she said.
Customers noticed. Gutierrez could hardly keep up with demand in her new, tiny kitchen. She quickly realized the restaurant needed to go bigger. She found a space on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis on Craigslist and jumped on it. Hamburguesas El Gordo’s flagship Minneapolis restaurant opened at the end of 2016. Later, she closed the first St. Paul spot, and about a year ago, opened a new outpost in West St. Paul.
The leap from managing a one-day-a-week burger pop-up in her own kitchen to owning and operating two restaurants was dizzying. “Running your own business is very difficult,” she said. “But I had to keep going as the demand keeps growing. You don’t have time to stop. You have to meet deadlines.”
She didn’t have plans to open any more restaurants, but a regular customer — who happens to be a landlord — approached her with a vacancy just off St. Paul’s Selby Avenue (in the former Tori Ramen space). Gutierrez said she “just couldn’t turn it down,” and started planning to open a third location when coronavirus hit.
A couple of weeks into the pandemic, Gutierrez wasn’t sure her restaurants could survive at all, let alone expand.
She cut her staff’s hours by 40% and waited for sales to tumble. To her surprise, sales rose at the Minneapolis location, significantly. “It was incredible,” she said. Takeout and delivery caught on, and Gutierrez not only hired back all of her staff, but took on a few more employees.
“And everything we used to know in how to run the restaurant prior to the pandemic was completely changed,” she said.
New operation systems, new training for employees, and speeding up orders were all necessary for to keep pace with a new onslaught of takeout business.
Things were just getting into a groove. And then one of her employees called in sick. The employee was feeling tired and “weird,” Gutierrez said. A lab test confirmed it was COVID.
Gutierrez informed the rest of her staff and encouraged everyone to get tested. She and Gerardo also went in for their swabs.
The night before, the unrest largely centered on Lake Street had crept farther south, to the restaurant’s front door. Gutierrez never expected the violence and vandalism to reach her corner, but it did. The glass door was smashed, windows broken, office ransacked, and money taken.
“I didn’t think that was going to happen, because I was supposedly far away from where things were going on,” she said. “I felt somehow safe, but I was wrong.”
Days later, Gerardo got his test result: positive. Then, Claudia got sick. Their oldest son also showed mild symptoms. (Hamburguesas El Gordo’s other employees were all healthy.)
So while her restaurant closed to recover from the break-in, the Gutierrez family stayed home to recover from COVID. It took three weeks for the restaurant to re-emerge; the virus’ effects lingered even longer.
“The toughest part was after I was done with everything, my body was so weak,” Gutierrez said. “It was kind of scary. Even to go from the living room to the kitchen, I had to sit down. I was out of breath. That lasted for another two weeks.”
But while she rested and tried home remedies, a social media connection proved fruitful.
Instagram user Mindy Urlaub met Gutierrez through the photo-sharing platform, and has been running the restaurant’s account ever since. When Urlaub shared news of the break-in online, other social media users wanted to help.
Urlaub launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the stolen employee wages. It brought in almost $7,000.
“They have a strong following of people who love their food,” Urlaub said.
The loss in the break-in was “a big hit for us,” Gutierrez said.
“We couldn’t have made it through” without a Paycheck Protection loan, a small business loan, and the help that came from “the Instagram people” and other supporters and fans of those great, big burgers.
“It’s incredible,” Gutierrez said. “I didn’t know [the community] was that strong, but it is. I am very thankful for that.”
Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson
Hamburguesas El Gordo
4157 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-722-1087
1731 S. Robert St., West St. Paul, 651-340-1483
161 Victoria St., St. Paul (opening Oct. 1)