When Mario Amaya first set foot in Bremerton in 2009, he fell in love.
“It was like an awakening," he said. "I had something inside me that just sparked. And I felt this place being special.”
He and his wife Ofelia started selling tacos on the street under a portable tent on the sidewalk. Shipyard worker Bobby Manglona was one of the first customers.
“I’d never had tacos like that before,” Manglona said. He told all his friends about the place. Soon, people lined up 20 deep on the sidewalk for Mario and Ofelia’s tacos.
Don Stauff, owner of Boston Deli and Pizza, wasn't happy about this. He said it hurt his bottom line. “I didn’t want them on the street," said Stauff. "They were affecting my business.”
The Amayas' tacos affected other restaurants, too. That's because few people actually live or work in downtown Bremerton. Most of the day is kind of dead, and you can find restaurant owners sitting at empty tables, reading the newspaper. Then, at lunchtime, there’s heavy competition for the Navy shipyard workers who flood into Bremerton to grab food.
"You have to be fast because they only have half an hour,” Stauff said.
The restaurant owners had their way, and soon city workers came by and told the Amayas their operation was too big. They’d have to shrink – or shut down.
Mario Amaya said they were already as small as possible. He and Ofelia closed and returned to Tacoma.
This was the height of the recession. Mario couldn’t find work. “Even Jack In The Box wouldn’t hire me,” he said.
Mario and Ofelia lost their apartment in Tacoma and moved into their Chevy Suburban with their five kids.
It was the middle of winter. “I was seeing my children cold, hungry, not enough gas to even put the heater on," recalled Mario. “There were moments, many things crossed my mind: 'I should just go steal some food.'”
Ofelia reached for his hand. “I just looked at him and said, 'Don’t feel bad. Look at all the stars. Look at the sky. We have everything. We have our kids. We have each other.'”
It turns out, they also had Bremerton’s shipyard workers. Because soon after that, they got a call from Bobby Manglona, one of their loyal customers.
Mario told him about his family’s homelessness. “Bobby said, 'Man, I didn’t know this, Mario. Why didn’t you tell me, man?'”
Word of the family’s homelessness spread through the shipyard. The shipyard employs 20,000 people in a town of 40,000, so that’s a lot of wagging tongues.
Not long after that call, the city called Mario and Ofelia and invited them back to Bremerton. They’d be allowed to take up more sidewalk space than they had before.
Manglona and his friends helped Mario and Ofelia find an apartment nearby.
Manglona said he felt relieved but nervous, too. After all, the city had ejected this family once before. It could eject them again.
Stauff of Boston Deli and Pizza has come around. He helped the Amayas find a storefront to move into, where they operate as El Balcon. He also showed them how to keep track of their finances. The Amayas say he's become a mentor and a friend.
There’s a little more competition in Bremerton for shipyard customers at lunch time now. Stauff said his restaurant will survive.
“We’re getting by," he said. "I’m not getting wealthy, but I’m enjoying it. I've made a lot of friends.”
Some day, if Bremerton has its way, more people will live downtown. Diverse, thriving businesses will spit all kinds of people onto the streets beyond lunch time. But for now, the shipyard and its workers are the people to feed.
Some days, they eat tacos. Others, calzones.