More than a year ago, a typical Monday in May took a turn for the worst, spiraling one local family into a long road to recovery.
Martha Acosta, who co-owns the Mexican eatery Baja Cantina along with her husband José, was hand-making tortillas in their restaurant when her son Andres told her he smelled smoke. Martha went next door to the neighboring Sequim Consignment Co., and noticed smoke hovering along the ceiling.
It was within hours that despite more than 2 million gallons of water used by firefighters, an electrical fire had spread through the entirety of the attic and took both businesses.
“Watching the restaurant burn down was devastating – I can still picture it,” Martha said. “It was our livelihood.”
Returning home that Monday night, Martha said she and her husband had no idea what they were going to do. Not only did the restaurant support their family, but also the families of their many employees, including some cousins and extended family.
“A lot of people were out of work,” she said.
Although Martha, as a certified nursing assistant, could continue to work, for her husband, finding work proved challenging.
“In Sequim, I think it can be especially difficult for Hispanic people to find work,” Martha said.
Both José and Martha immigrated to the United States decades ago as teenagers. At 16, José began working for his uncle, which kick-started his career in the restaurant industry and eventually led him to become a chef.
A skilled chef, but with little work to be found locally, the possibility of moving to a large city, like Chicago, became an option.
However, Martha fought the notion of having to raise her youngest (6-year-old) son in a big city, so the family opted to try to stay in Sequim — the place they’ve called home since 1999.
After months of worry, hard work and dedication toward piecing their life back together, the option to rent the location of the former El Cazador restaurant became a reality for the Acostas after owner of Tootsie’s Linda “Candy” Diesen purchased the property that includes the iconic grain elevator in mid-March.
“When one door shuts, another door opens,” Martha said. “We’re really grateful to Candy.”
By June, Martha and José were able to reopen Baja Cantina.
“We decided to do a soft opening because it’s been such a big transition and we’re still getting back on our feet,” she said. “So far it’s been good and we’re hopeful it will continue.”
The Acostas have been able to replace most of the equipment lost to the fire, but adjusting to a larger space is something that’s taking some time.
“We really like it here,” Martha said. “It’s a good location, but we’re still figuring out what to do with all the space.”
The layout of the building is a work in progress, but the menu underwent only slight modifications, Martha said. Preparing, cooking and serving quality food is second nature to José given he’s devoted his career to it; thus, all the original Baja Cantina favorites remain and everything is made fresh.
Once fully settled into their new space, Martha is excited to incorporate hand-made tortillas back into the menu. However, the Acostas are moving ahead one step at a time as they work to rebuild a good foundation for the restaurant.
“It takes a lot of time,” Martha said. “It can be hard to balance the business and take care of our family, but we love working together as a family in our own restaurant and we make a good team.”
While the dust is beginning to settle as Martha and José move into their second month of being back in business, they haven’t forgotten all those that helped them throughout the past year.
“I’m so thankful to all the families and to those in the community that helped us and took the time to say a prayer,” Martha said.
“Sometimes there are no words to really express how thankful we are.”
“You can replace a lot of the material stuff, but you can’t buy friends — you earn them,” she said.
Baja Cantina is open seven days a week, offering specials and happy hour from 4-6 p.m. daily. The banquet room is available to reserve for events, meetings and parties.