Three years ago Angelica Lima started getting sick. So sick that the 24-year-old single mother suddenly found herself in a wheelchair. Her condition left her doctors stumped, and after a few months they suggested she seek a second opinion in Brazil, her native country. Desperate for a diagnosis, Angelica decided to make the trip, leaving her two-year-old son David in Richmond with her mother Estela and the rest of her family.
Her absence was relatively short. Doctors in Brazil diagnosed her with rare allergies and, with new treatment, she was ready to return to her life in Richmond three months later. But when she got home, she found that things had changed.
For starters, there were the 100 or so people showing up at her mother’s door step on weekends.
Estela Lima would be the first to point out that this is not quite the fate she imagined for herself. In fact, she never imagined a life in Richmond at all. When she first brought Angelica and her siblings Paulo and Jarbas to the city 11 years ago it was supposed to be a vacation to visit their father Antonio and brother Daniel, who came the year before to find work in construction. Then grandmothers, uncles, aunts and cousins came, and the Lima family never got around to going back home.
Knowing little English, Estela had few options for work. So she and Angelica had gone into business together, running a housecleaning service. When Angelica returned to Brazil, though, continuing the business became too grueling for Estela. Plus, it was fruitless; she was spending her entire income on childcare for David.
Missing her grandson and tired of cleaning, Estela decided to leave her business and return to the work she knows best: cooking. Before coming to Richmond, she spent years working in her own restaurant, specializing in the cuisine native to her home state of Goiano, Brazil. But her new “restaurant” would be more casual—her home kitchen.
“We had about 50 people for lunch on weekdays and 100 people on weekends,” Estela recalls.
Most were coming for a take-out meal, but many stayed to chat.
It turns out, while Angelica had been looking for a cure in Brazil, Estela had diagnosed a different ailment plaguing the members of their immigrant community: homesickness—a condition she could relieve through the stomach.
“It was like coming home to mom for lunch,” said Ana Paula Moraes, who came to Estela’s home daily. “Brazilians are word-of-mouth people, and everyone was saying the food was good.”
News of Estela’s cooking spread quickly in the Brazilian community, mostly through Estela’s friends at St. John the Baptist Church on San Pablo Ave.
The crowds got bigger. By the time Angelica returned—healthy—from her trip to Brazil, it was getting out of control.
“Neighbors began complaining,” Angelica said, “The city came twice to shut down her business.”
After the city’s final warning, the family decided it was time to make a change.
Returning to the housecleaning business was not an option. Because of her health condition, Angelica could no longer work with housecleaning products. And by now, the Lima family had the resources and the popular following to do what Estela had always hoped they could do—open a family restaurant.
The Brazilian Coffeehouse & Restaurant Goiano, located on San Pablo Avenue between Macdonald and Barret Avenues, opened on May 7 of this year. Its location is a reminder of just how precarious it is to open a new restaurant in this economy: the space, once inhabited by a former restaurant, is sandwiched between a competing eatery and a vacant storefront. Estela found the site advertised on Craigslist.
But the Limas say the restaurant business has been good to them.
“We make better money now,” said Angelica, who is now 27. “It helps that we keep it all in the family.”
Angelica, her parents, her siblings and cousins all work in the restaurant.
“It’s a very good business,” said Estela, whose English is still limited. “I love my work.”
While business may be better, the Limas are working harder. The restaurant opens for breakfast at 5 a.m. Fifty-one-year-old Estela wakes up two hours earlier.
When the doors first open, morning customers go straight to the carafes of coffee and hot water on the front counter. Estela greets them in Portuguese as they walk in. Dressed in jeans and Carhartts the crowd is mostly a mix of working-class Brazilian immigrants.
“We are house cleaners, construction workers, drivers,” said Moraes, who drives trucks with her husband. “We wake up early for our breakfast.”
Then she laughed.
“I’ve gained 10 lbs since they opened,” she said.
“Before we had to buy American food like donuts,” said Jose Sobrinho, who runs a housecleaning service with his wife. They come to the restaurant at least twice a week to eat the Brazilian pastries they grew up on.
On a recent morning most of the customers asked for the same thing: pão de queijo, a flaky, savory pastry the size of a donut hole. Estela piles them in brown paper bags and hands them off to the customers going to work. Those who are just coming back from their shifts linger a little longer, thumbing through the stacks of business cards and fliers displayed near the front door—all from other Brazilian business owners.
There are other reminders of their homeland: a flag, specially imported sodas and sand paintings of Brazilian landscapes. But the décor is otherwise spare. There are eleven tables, industrial carpet and a big screen T.V.
“There are many Brazilian restaurants in the Bay Area, but they are mostly steakhouses, and it’s expensive,” said Sobrinho, who likes the restaurant’s casual buffet style. “There was nothing like this before.”
“I got a text from a friend about this place, and I told her I had never heard about it,” said Juliana Barbosa. “So she came over to my house with a pastry, and I was like ‘Oh my god, it tastes like Brazil.’”
Barbosa, who’s in training to be an esthetician specializing in Brazilian waxing, said she brings her new favorite pastries to share with classmates every week. The Limas let her put her new beauty business cards on their table.
“This is our get-together place, our other home,” said Moraes, who says the restaurant has become so popular with other Brazilian families in Richmond that there is usually a line out the door on Saturdays for the house feijoada, a traditional stew of beans and meat.
They’re not the only ones waiting in line to indulge.
“Americans are finding out about this place,” Sobrinho said. “Sometimes there are more Americans than Brazilians.”
But Estela said she is just happy to have customers.
“I like working around people,” she said. “And I have a lot of bills to pay.”
Angelica said she has a lot to be thankful for this year—even if it came from troubled beginnings.
“If I didn’t get sick, we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
And there may be another Lima with a destined vocation, too.
“I just bought my son David a chef’s jacket,” she said. “He really likes helping in the kitchen.”