Let’s just get it straight now, Marias is Mangolandia. Actually, it’s better to say Marias encompasses the tropical dessert eatery that is Mangolandia.
“This is a bigger place,” says owner Maria Luna about her titular diner. “It’s going to be Marias, because now we’re serving food and there’s going to be wine.”
Maria’s opened its doors Friday, Jan. 6, literally right across the street from were Luna began serving her signature Mangonadas a year earlier.
While she’s holding onto Mangolandia’s distinct dessert menu, she’s entering the world of the classic eatery, which includes hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos and sundaes.
But that’s just the beginning, in the weeks to come Luna plans to add pizza to the menu. When the time is right, she’ll also open the bar upstairs and serve wine and beer.
She’s slowly transforming the former Century Grille/Copper Penny corner building into it’s latest restaurant reincarnation, a friendly and relatively cheap breakfast/diner.
“I figure, if some guy tells another guy ‘let’s go and have a beer at Mangolandia’ it just doesn’t sound right,” says the Chicago entrepreneur about the name change.
“This way a guy can tell another guy, ‘Hey, let’s go to Marias and have drink’ and be fine with the name,” she adds. “But I still wanted to keep Mangolandia because that’s how I started, and that’s how people are getting to know me.”
Maria Luna moved to West Liberty three years ago from Chicago. Originally born in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, her parents brought her to the Windy City at the age of 11.
Years later she moved from a town of 2.7 million to one of 4,000 in order to be closer to her three adult children and her seven grandchildren. However, she missed that big city atmosphere.
“In Chicago there’s little vendors at every corner, when I came to this town there’s nothing like that,” says Luna. “I missed all the fruit and hot dogs for sale at every street.”
So, in 2015 Luna started her own little shack along Prairie Street, serving various desserts from a cooler. She used that famous quote from the oh-so-Iowan classic movie Field of Dreams.
“I figured if you build it, they will come,” she says with enthusiasm. “So I built my little shack with my husband and a lot of people started coming.”
In fact, the people started coming so often it became a problem. Cars filled driveways and into the street impeding traffic. This, of course, caught the attention of the police.
So, about three months after opening her little Chicago-style shack, Luna moved the business downtown and named it Mangolandia. There she would spend a successful 2016 capturing the community.
By the end of the year Luna was having the same problem, a problem most entrepreneurs dream about. She just didn’t have enough room for people to sit.
Thus, we now have Marias, the expanded downtown diner in a larger building.
“I have no idea how it’s going to go,” says Luna flatly. “I’m not a rich person, I don’t have money. I started off as you can see. I’m just going to try it and see what happens.”
Right now Marias doesn’t have any solid hours or schedule. Her restaurant is open every day of the week, except for Wednesday, from the late morning into the afternoon.
Basically, Luna is just learning as she goes. The menu is also a work in progress. She’s going to use the next few months to guage what people like and order.
If something isn’t selling well it’ll get kicked off the menu for something else. That’s how she’ll also gauge the popularity of her daily and weekly specials.
In fact, Luna is very open about the fact that she’s had no special training and has no culinary college degrees. She learns from books and experience.
“It was scary in the beginning,” she admits. “I’ve never been in a restaurant serving people before. Yeah, I am nervous. I’m not educated on everything, I’m still asking questions and learning.”
Maria Luna may be the epitome of the American Dream, she saw what she believed was a need in West Liberty and went for it.
“Years passed here and I would say we need something like this for people,” she says “And never did any of the Hispanic people do this kind of stuff… so I did.”
That’s why she stepped up, and little by little it seems to be coming together. Restaurants are a tricky business, indicated by the recent history of the very building she’s inhabiting.
But, she’s learning where to order food, hot to build signs, where to put menus and how to use the oven in the back of the building.
Everyday she, her husband, family and staff are learning a little more about the business. It’s the classic clash of street smarts versus school smarts.
But if Luna can do it, so can you!
There’s a giant painting behind the counter of Marias. It shows a series of empty stairs ascending into the horizon of Italy, surrounded by homes and businesses.
In a way it represents Luna’s plunge into the unknown. Where the stairs go, nobody knows. But there’s something familiar about the journey.
You see, from one of those businesses in the painting hangs a lone sign with the words “Tejanas Soriano” stylized around a cowboy hat.
It stands for Juan Soriano, her father who passed away last year.
“He can’t be here and he can’t see me now, so I put that there like that’s his store. He passed away, but I know that in spirit he’s here,” says Luna.
This is only the beginning of what Luna, and the rest of West Liberty, hopes to be a long success story. However, a lot of that rests with the community.
Luna built it, but will they come?
Marias: The NEW MangolandiaJacob Lane · Wednesday, January 18, 2017