story by Marla Cantrell
The December 17 fire that torched El Lorito at 511 Broadway in Van Buren, stalled a business that was bringing in $55,000 in sales each month.
Owners Jose Perez and Arturo Jaime have since been working with their insurance company and are hopeful they can reopen in late June or early July.
“We were shooting for April but that wasn’t possible,” Perez said. “March through July are our busiest months, so we wanted to open sooner.”
They are taking the opportunity to make some improvements in the Van Buren location. They will reduce the size of the kitchen and add tables in the dining area. The menu, however, will stay the same.
Most of their business comes from area residents. They don’t see a lot of traffic from tourists in Van Buren, mostly because they are a few blocks away from the downtown area. Those coming in on the excursion train, for example, are on foot and don’t venture far enough to find the popular restaurant.
But they do see a good deal of traffic from annual events, such as the Old Fort Days Rodeo, which is held at the end of May at Kay Rodgers Park just across the Midland Blvd. bridge in Fort Smith. It’s one of the big opportunities they’ll miss this year.
Jaime and Perez said many of their regular customers have been showing up at their other El Lorito restaurant at 1505 S. B St., in Fort Smith. They appreciate that kind of loyalty, especially since there are so many other places for customers to go.
It has not always been that way. When Jaime started in the restaurant business in 1988 there were not as many choices. At that time, the influx of Mexican restaurants had not begun in the region and certainly not in the Fort Smith area.
“Since this restaurant opened about 14 years ago, we’ve seen 10 Mexican restaurants come into the area,” Perez said. “It used to be just Cuco’s and Juan’s in Fort Smith and now it’s everywhere.”
That and the lagging economy have hurt business some, although the two are not worried about their future.
“El Lorito is popular with the people in Van Buren,” Jaime said. “We had a steady business on weekdays and on the weekend. We want to open as soon as we can and get those customers back in.”
When the grease fire shut the restaurant down at the end of last year, eight people worked full time at the Van Buren shop.
“We might hire a few more in the beginning and then we’ll see,” Perez said. “We expect it to be busy when we reopen. People have been waiting with us since the fire.”
Once reopened, El Lorito will join 51 restaurants operating in Van Buren.