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SILER CITY — Tucked away on East 3rd Street, Rojo Canela, a family-owned Mexican restaurant, has been whipping up authentic food for Siler City since 2018.
Now, the lights are off, the tables are empty and the kitchen’s closed.
After nearly three years of serving Siler City with “calidez humana,” or human warmth, Rojo Canela has shut down — permanently. March 1 was the restaurant’s last day.
“There are no words,” said Leo Davalos-Nuño, who owned and operated Rojo Canela with his wife, Aidee. “... I am trying to see — how can I say it? I probably have to sit down and write something (on Facebook). I’m letting my customers know (who) used to call me for take out.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, he told the News + Record.
“I like to serve,” he said. “I did it all the time with my fullest respect. I want to be the best servant to the restaurant. But actually, I never knew what I was getting to.”
Rojo Canela first opened on April 27, 2018. According to a statement Davalos-Nuño posted on Facebook, he used 40 years’ worth of savings to open Rojo Canela and “fulfil (his) American Dream.” He and Aidee originally immigrated to Siler City from Zapotlanejo, Jalisco, in Mexico. The food Rojo Canela served all came from family recipes.
“We thought that we were going to be so successful because we put in so much effort since the beginning — our recipes, our food, to keep it clean,” Davalos-Nuño said. “I thought we had it because when we opened the business, we were selling anywhere from $900 to $1,600 a day.”
But soon after opening, their fortunes began to change: In 2018, East 3rd Street closed for about seven months or so to facilitate construction traffic while the new Mountaire Farms chicken processing plant was developed.
“We had four employees plus my wife and me,” he said. “I had a girl to help us out as a waitress, and when they closed the road, I had to let them go — everyone — because the business just dropped; you know, all the traffic went through all the other street, and that was it. That was the end.”
Rojo Canela used to open at 6 a.m. for breakfast, he recalled; steadily, they began opening later, backing it up “to seven, then to eight, then to nine” until they hit 11 a.m. The restaurant used to be open seven days a week, too, but about a year ago, they decided to close on Sundays.
Then in early 2020, COVID-19 struck — and that proved to be the final blow.
“We decided just to close because it was too hard, especially for Aidee, because we weren’t able to hire someone,” Davalos-Nuño said. “They wanted $15 an hour, but we can’t pay that much. We were making a little, but not that much.”
Maintaining the restaurant by themselves, he said, involved a lot of work — “lots of hours” — and his wife felt the pressure.
“It is closing for good because I don’t want my wife to go through this again,” he said. “... Aidee didn’t have any more chances to do her painting, and she had just a few moments, but not that much. It finally got to us, you know? Can’t do it anymore.”
Davalos-Nuño has canceled nearly everything — the internet, phone and gas. Now all that’s left is to sell or rent out the building, which he owns.
Rojo Canela’s closing has shocked and devastated Siler City residents who enjoyed its food and friendship.
Dave and Nicol Gaddis have been going to Rojo Canela since 2018, just after it first opened. They’d only just ordered taco salads the Sunday before the restaurant closed — and might have been among the last customers Rojo Canela served.
“I worked under the State Department and I lived in Mexico for about eight years, and I have eaten Mexican cuisine in all 32 states of Mexico, and I’ve told everybody this, nobody — I mean, nobody — could cook as well as the Rojo Canela,” Dave told the News + Record. “That was just the best food and (they were) just a very kind family, a good family, the kind of family you want to be in Siler City.”
They’d always order dozens of homemade tamales for the holidays, and sometimes Aidee would cook food for them that wasn’t on the menu. Both said they’ll miss Rojo Canela dearly, especially their flavors and “variety of dishes.”
“It’s a real loss for Chatham County. It’s a huge loss for Siler City,” Dave said. “... They’ve contributed to this town, and it’s a shame that it ends up this way. We’re all very saddened by it.”
Now that Rojo Canela’s closed, Davalos-Nuño said he thinks he’ll plan on opening another small business — this time involving automobiles.
“I’m pretty good at mechanics,” he said. “Ever since I had a car, I have never been to the mechanic shop. I had done always my (own) services and repairs. I think I’m good enough to — and I used to be a truck driver. That’s another option. I can go trucking.”
All the hardships and disappointment aside, Davalos-Nuño said he doesn’t regret owning and operating Rojo Canela.
“I see this way: At least I gave it a try, and we held it for three years. I would have (held) it longer,” he said, breaking off.
Later, he added, “We’ll make it through.”