CLENDENIN — Marco “Julio” LaHut was one of many Elkview Crossings Mall workers to lose his job when the only bridge to the shopping center washed away in the June 2016 flood.
Longtime regular customers say he was known for his hardworking personality at the mall’s Mexican restaurant, La Carreta, where he worked for 10 years.
Now it appears that hard work has paid off. Even though construction is underway on a new bridge, LaHut is already back at work a few miles away — not as an employee, but as the boss.
Last month, he opened Julio’s, the first Mexican restaurant in Clendenin, and one of only two restaurants in town.
“Years ago, my dream was to open a restaurant in this country,” LaHut said. “Now, my dream is true.”
Oddly enough, things began to come together just weeks after the devastating flood that took his livelihood and that of so many others.
“At the time, things were really bad here. Every single business had been wiped out,” said Susan Jack, executive director for the Greater Kanawha Long-Term Recovery Committee.
“However, I knew that if businesspeople didn’t have some assistance — we weren’t going to have a town worth staying in.”
Hoping to help businesses recover from the flood, she connected LaHut to Bill Ore, owner of Clendenin Pharmacy and several long-vacant downtown storefronts. Ore offered to lease one of the empty spaces to him — but the amount of work required was almost overwhelming.
“I said, ‘Julio, please look beyond the mess. There’s a vision here,’” Jack said.
The building is more than 100 years old and received six feet of water during the flood, leaving it caked in mud and badly damaged.
LaHut decided to take a chance on the future — and he hit the ground running.
“The next day, I buy all the tools and clean it out,” he said.
He spent about three months cleaning and disinfecting the space before he could begin decorating.
He covered the walls of the restaurant in bright, neon colors — green, yellow, pink, blue and purple — to make it feel like a “party — Mexican style.”
Then, he sent money to his brother in Mexico, who sent him a box of authentic decorations, including strings of flags, sombreros and pictures of Mexico.
“In Mexico, the restaurants are really fancy, really expensive, but we have restaurants like this,” he explained, gesturing to his more informal decor.
Now, his regular customers at La Carreta visit him at his new location.
“I think this restaurant is a life-saver for this town,” said David Ross, a former Clendenin resident and customer at La Carreta. “I find Julio to be one of the most honest, forthright people I’ve ever met. He takes care of his customers. Every time we’re here, we come up here and support him.”
Ross lived his entire life in Clendenin before the flood devastated his own home last year. He and his wife, Judy, took the opportunity to move closer to their children and grandchildren in Kenova, but the couple still visits occasionally.
“I still love the town, and I still hope it makes a comeback,” David said. “Julio is the start of business recovery. Without a good restaurant, you don’t have anything.”
The restaurant business hasn’t always been LaHut’s dream. At 19, he was a professional boxer in Mexico.
He said boxing “takes the stress away and makes you relax.”
But at the professional level, LaHut said the sport was expensive and corrupt. People would sometimes try to pay him to lose, sometimes threatening his life when that didn’t work.
He loved Mexico, but when his sister offered him a ticket to move to the U.S., he couldn’t refuse. He stayed with her in Salt Lake City for about a month before making his way to Alabama, where his brother was working in construction.
Eventually he landed at a Mexican restaurant in Ohio, where he started as a dishwasher and worked his way up.
“I was always fast for work. When you boxing, you’re fast for everything,” LaHut laughed as he pretended to punch his hands in a boxing motion.
LaHut said he was promoted to a chef position and developed a dream of opening his own Mexican restaurant one day.
“It’s really stressful, but I enjoy the stress,” he said.
Eventually, he moved to West Virginia, where he worked at La Carreta and found a place he felt he belonged.
After the restaurant was forced to close, he didn’t feel ready to leave.
In addition to the first store Ore agreed to lease to him, LaHut also convinced the owner to give him the empty space next door, too.
He converted it into more of a saloon-look, complete with a rustic-looking bar and wooden floors.
He’s now waiting on a liquor license, but he envisions customers enjoying a Mexican band singing in the corner as they enjoy their burritos and margaritas.
Julio’s is now one of only two sit-down restaurants in Clendenin, and the only one downtown.
Rather than bringing in workers, LaHut chose to hire locals as cooks and servers.
His last professional fight was in 2000, but LaHut still enjoys sparring at the gym right across from his new restaurant. It’s one more reason he feels right at home in his new surroundings. He’s found a community of people he loves and who make him feel appreciated.
“[Whether] I make a lot of money or not, this is perfect,” LaHut said.
Carlee Lammers contributed to this story.
Reach Jennifer Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1230 or follow @jenncgardner on Twitter.