Editor’s note: During Hispanic Heritage Month, the Tyler Morning Telegraph is highlighting Hispanics making a difference in our community.
Behind a restaurant that has grown to become a Tyler staple, a woman who has endured many challenges is leading success in her growing empire.
From humble beginnings and just $21 in her pocket, Ruby Abarca — a mother, wife and business owner — has used her growing restaurant as a tool to give back to her community, beginning with her own staff.
Before the second location of Ruby’s Mexican Restaurant closed due to a fire that caused major damage in March, Abarca knew she wanted a second location that could be a safe space for her female restaurant workers.
The women-run business was inspired by each woman who had experienced sexual harassment while working in small restaurants. From their experiences, working in tight kitchen spaces often meant unwelcome groping and sometimes inappropriate physical contact with other staff.
Abarca wanted her women to feel safe.
“I said, ‘In this kitchen, I’m not going to have not one man because I don’t want that.’ It’s uncomfortable. As a woman, you work because it’s a necessity. It’s not a want. Sometimes one puts up with it because of the same reason,” she said.
Many of the women who worked at Ruby’s second location worked two jobs, but others fully depended on Abarca’s business to provide for their families. She recalled one of her staff members at the time escaping a relationship where she suffered domestic abuse.
“I always told her, ‘Why don’t you report this to the police?’ but it scares us. The word ‘police’ scares us because that indicates a runaround, processes and sometimes in the end, nothing happens,” Abarca said.
Abarca helped the single mother who escaped to Texas not only by employing her, but by also taking her to have here taxes done and helping her to become successful here.
In other instances, members of her staff have said they needed help with rent assistance. Through those times, Abarca has been there to help them, refusing to take it out of their paychecks.
“I was never given that opportunity. I was sleeping on a carpet for six months. I didn’t even have a mattress. My parents have always been there for me in everything, I swear, so I tell them I want to make it slightly easier (for staff). I don’t want to be a millionaire and just explode. Many people are surprised when I tell them how much I pay. I love to give them overtime,” she said.
Abarca’s inspiration to help those around her comes from friends always believing in her. She said she hasn’t forgotten when Paulina Pedroza, who teaches English as a second language, encouraged her to open a restaurant as she made and sold food from her home.
She started with only $21. She perfected her specialty flan and eventually, grew into making a menu she’d serve from home.
Back then, Abarca said she was working 60 hours a week at her day job and Friday would be her only day off. During that time, she would cook and sell food from her home. She was finally able to open her restaurant last year in August.
“It’s not hard to work. The whole world works. What’s hard is to save money. It’s my inspiration to be able to say, ‘I can. This is for a little while, but I know it’s going to pay off,’” Abarca said.
Abarca has accomplished buying her own home and having her finances in order. Learning how to do so has been a struggle as her first language is Spanish, but members of the Hispanic community have helped her along the way, such as Spanish-speaking bank tellers and realtors.
With their help, Abarca relays information to her staff, such as how to apply for credit cards to begin building credit, getting a state ID, submitting applications to be homeowners and learning about how checking accounts work.
She said she’s told them if she’s doing well, they’re going to do well, too.
From helping her Hispanic staff to encouraging them to make smart financial decisions, all while managing a business hands-on and in the kitchen, Abarca said no one knows the sacrifices she’s made to run Ruby’s.
“Since I opened the restaurant, I haven’t eaten dinner with my family at our dining room table,” she said.
Her daughter is turning 18, her son is 15 and her youngest daughter is 6 years old. Both of Abarca’s teens attend Chapel Hill ISD and play in the school band. Her 18-year-old is taking college credit classes and would like to study medicine. Her teens help run the restaurant when they can, mostly on the weekends.
Regardless of the fact that it’s hard to balance business time with family time, Abarca always makes sure she’s at her children’s band recitals, and always sets a boundary to make sure she’s out of the restaurant by 3 p.m. to pick up her daughter at school.
One of the biggest challenges is missing out on family time to focus on her restaurant, which she treats as a baby.
“I have to take care of it. I have to nurture it like a baby because if I don’t, it’ll get hurt or it’ll die,” she said.
Recently, Abarca was approved as a vendor at the East Texas State Fair. This was a major accomplishment for her as it’s known to be difficult to secure a spot. When she convinced herself to go to the office to ask, to her surprise, staff were already working on reaching out to her to request her restaurant to sell food at the fair.
Abarca said this is the time she’s working hard to build her food empire, with a second location coming soon on Broadway Avenue. She hopes to relax and enjoy the fruits of her labor later in life with her family and children.
Ruby's Mexican Restaurant is located at 2021 East Gentry Parkway in Tyler.