MADELIA, MINN. – In the time it took for a fire to level much of a city block in Madelia, Krystal Hernandez saw her life’s dream of owning a restaurant come to a sudden, smoky end.
Her La Plaza Fiesta, celebrated by its fans as the best Mexican restaurant in southern Minnesota, was one of eight businesses that were damaged or destroyed by the fire. She and her husband, Daniel, had run it for five years.
“It could have been so much worse. We’re all so lucky that no one got hurt,” said Hernandez, 27.
No cause for Wednesday’s fire has been determined. Five buildings were flattened, and two more will have to be torn down due to water, smoke and structural damage. A once-busy stretch of the Main Street in Madelia, a town of 2,300 people in Watonwan County, was left a pile of ash, rubble and ice.
For Hernandez, the loss brings her back to 2008. That was the year when her best friend, a man named Fabian who told her he would help her find a husband and who planned to open a restaurant with her, died in a car crash. This happened just as her two employers closed up shop and left her unemployed. The disastrous events sent her back to live with her parents in Owatonna, where she had grown up. She took a job at a Mexican restaurant and fell in love with Daniel, a co-worker. They married in 2014.
Hernandez looks back now and thinks Fabian lived up to his promise. “He always told me that he was going to find me my husband, and it’s just so funny that he did,” she said.
She and Daniel moved to Madelia in 2011 to manage a Mexican restaurant. A year later, they owned the place.
It wasn’t their original plan, but when they landed in Madelia, locals made them feel like they had come home, said Hernandez.
“It was our first day, and we felt like we were born here,” she said. Their business grew, Krystal running the front of the 80-seat restaurant and Daniel in charge of the kitchen, whipping up recipes from his childhood in Mexico.
This year, with 11 employees and the restaurant doing a solid business, they decided to open a Mexican grocery store two doors down from their restaurant, a place where they could sell their salsa and guacamole and cater to the tastes of immigrants from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala. It was set to open March 1.
Early Wednesday she got a call from her brother-in-law, who lives behind the restaurant. Something was happening outside and he needed a quiet place for his children to sleep. He asked if Daniel could come pick him up.
“By the time Daniel got there, it was, ‘Oh my God, Madelia’s on fire!’ and I don’t even remember after that,” said Hernandez.
The building that housed La Plaza still stands, and as the smoke cleared, it appeared at first as if the restaurant had survived. The miracle wasn’t to be. Smoke, water and building damage destroyed it. A contractor will tear down the building as the town rebuilds.
Hernandez credits the firefighters for saving the rest of the buildings on Main Street. It could have been so much worse, she said.
It’s not clear yet how they’ll reopen, but Hernandez said there was never a question about it. They plan to stay in town and rebuild. A cousin started a GoFundMe page that’s raised some money to keep them and their employees afloat as they wait out the rebuilding process. They’re brainstorming for ways to make money while they wait for a new building to go up.
“I can’t live without Madelia. I just can’t,” said Hernandez.
Whatever happens next, Krystal and Daniel won’t face it alone. Their baby boy, Emiliano Anthony, is due March 14.