Ivan and Jamie Gracia Rivera represent for Mexico at last year’s Gathering Together Multicultural Festival in Salmon Arm. The two operate Salmon Arm restaurant Cantina Vallarta. This summer, Ivan opened new Mexican restaurants in Sicamous and Lake Country. (File photo)

Salmon Arm restaurateur brings taste of Mexico to Sicamous, and Lake Country

Cantina Vallarta owner Ivan Rivera embraces opportunities amid pandemic

While this summer brought challenges for Shuswap restaurateur Ivan Gracia, it also brought opportunities to expand.

Like other restaurant owners across the province, Gracia was forced to temporarily close his Salmon Arm business, Cantina Vallarta, in March 2020 as the B.C. government attempted to get a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic.

As restrictions began to ease, Gracia was able to re-open and transition from take-out only to letting a small number of customers back in the door. He said the response from locals and visitors alike was amazing.

“Right away, they were like, ‘I haven’t’ been anywhere but I want to try your food;’ ‘I didn’t go to Mexico this year… instead of that, I come to your place.’ And I was, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, thank you very much!’ It was more like that than anything else,” said Gravia.

As this was going on, Gracia was spending time in Sicamous where he secured commercial space to open a second Mexican restaurant, La Cantinita Sicamous.

In the midst of this, he was contacted about another opportunity, a proposed partnership on a restaurant in Lake Country.

“She talked to me about the restaurant and I saw the potential of it and I said that will be great if we can get it,” said Gracia. “Then I saw the numbers, and then I saw how much it would cost to get it, and I thought it would be doable. We have to invest a little bit and put a lot of time and effort, but I told her it’s doable, we can make it happen.”

All of this resulted in the opening of La Cantinita Lake Country, located off Highway 97A at 9685 Winfield Plaza, and La Cantinita Sicamous, located at 444 Main Street, in the former Happy Corkers location.

“I know it’s a little bit risky but, at the same time, everybody is kind of sick of cooking,” said Gracia about opening new restaurants at any time, let alone amid a pandemic. “Society and the culture here in Canada, it’s go out and eat. It’s part of the culture, it’s part of the thing that us in normal life we do. That’s why I took the risk.

“We have to take risks to make our dreams come true or whatever you are planning for in the future… If we focus on the bad things that can happen, we never get it.”

Regarding the Sicamous location, Gracia plans to keep it open year-round.

“Sicamous’ population is not as big… But I say, if I get just five per cent of the population coming through the door, I’ll be golden, I’ll be great,” said Gracia. “I think we can make it. And local people like to support local and small business.”

Compared to the Salmon Arm restaurant, Gracia said the La Cantinita locations will have fewer menu offerings, but for each item – burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas – there will be a variety of options. In addition, based on input from locals, Gracia would like to have the Sicamous location open for breakfast.

Along with opening the new restaurants, Gracia and another business partner, Kyle Schumacher, have seen growing success with their Caliente Hot Sauce Company. Along with being carried in local stores, the raw, formerly made-in-the-Shuswap product line is now on the refrigerated shelves of Buy-Low Foods stores across Western Canada.

Gracia explained the increased demand for the line of sauces – habanero (based on Gracia’s mother’s recipe), chipotle and jalapeno – required moving production from Cantina Vallarta’s kitchen to the Lower Mainland.

“The deal was to use local produce from local farmers. It was a little bit more expensive but it was worth it,” said Gracia.

Rivera is grateful for all that he, his family, business partners and co-workers have been able to achieve. He said when he returned with his wife and children to the Shuswap in 2014 they had nothing. Having overcome past barriers, Gracia believes he, fellow business owners and North Okanagan-Shuswap communities as a whole can and will rebound from the challenges we face now.

“If you come from another country and you don’t speak the proper language and you have a lot of barriers…,” said Gracia. “I had two little ones at that time and now I have four. Life is tough but when you go through all these difficult times, it keeps you going, it makes you stronger and makes you tell people it’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”

“I know it’s tough right now but I think we have to believe in ourselves and also in our community and if we support each other, that’s the way we’ll make it happen.”

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