A couple of months ago, Flora Gonzalez slipped out of her black Converse All-Star sneakers and padded across a freshly painted tile floor to inspect her dream.
That dream was a new restaurant called Flora’s – named after her grandmother. It seats up to 34 customers and launched in March in a downtown Lancaster spot formerly occupied by a grocery store and more recently El Maizal Art Restaurant.
Gonzalez’s husband, Abner, and brother, Thaddeus Ramirez, help out with the business, which serves lunch and dinner every day except Sunday, plus breakfast on Saturdays.
The restaurateurs and their small staff serve patrons in two intimate rooms.
Flora, who lives in Millersville, is the owner and chief chef, whipping up zesty ethnic offerings like rellenos de papa and mofongo. She’s Puerto Rican, but her menu also includes Colombian, Cuban, Dominican and Peruvian fare.
“I love cooking and adding my own twist” to standard recipes, she says. “I go in and kind of modify the ingredients to give it Flo’s flavor.”
People have long courted Flo’s flavor, says Jacqui Swisher, who worked with Flora at Rivera Physical Therapy.
“At our office, we were always bringing food in,” she says. But Flora’s recipe for rice, beans, crabmeat and plantain stood mouth-wateringly apart from the contributions of the rest of the staff.
Growing up in a Jersey City, NJ, apartment, Flora was a natural with food from a young age, her brother says. Ramirez, 36, says Flora raised him and his two younger sisters, so they were lucky enough to enjoy her cooking from childhood on. Flora helped her grandmother Ana chop garlic, onions and cilantro on a pilón, or mortar and pestle. The older woman was a great cook, Flora remembers.
“One thing she always made around the holidays was bread pudding,” a dessert the kids waited months to savor.
Meanwhile, Flora’s grandfather Luis owned restaurants. She wanted to follow in his footsteps, but life delayed the vision.
After she moved to Lancaster in 1993 to be close to her father, Flora continued to rear her siblings and her own young children. She worked in medical billing for 17 years.
“She gave up a lot of her hopes and dreams to help others,” says Ramirez, whose favorite dish by his sister is breaded steak. All the while, she quietly built up her kitchen repertoire.
The idea for a restaurant – on which Flora says she had given up hope – was renewed last winter. Ramiro and Gloria Velasco had recently closed their five-year-old Colombian food establishment, El Maizal. Ramirez was looking for office space for his growing home-based business, TNNT Contracting. The parties talked.
“When I walked in,” Flora says, “I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh. This space is so great!’ My brother said, ‘Let’s go for it.’” They signed a lease in early February.
“It was a turnkey restaurant,” says Ramirez, who serves as Flora’s “jack of all trades” and has his TNNT business in a rear office. “We just painted and put a new floor in so we could make it our own.”
The dining area includes a front room opening on Mulberry and a back room with a communal table.
“We have Latin music playing all day,” Flora says, and a smart TV for conferences. The rear dining area may one day be used for performing arts programs, like salsa dance lessons.
Also, in the tradition of El Maizal, which featured Ramiro Velasco’s fine art on the walls, Flora’s displays Abner’s portraits in acrylic, chalk and pencil.
“My husband is an amazing artist” who created the logo and the color scheme for the restaurant, Flora says. He also installed two wall-mounted tables out front and fashioned a funky bathroom counter out of an old barn plank.
Abner, a truck parts distribution center employee by day, says helping his wife realize her dream is his favorite part of the project.
Jaime Zabala, a Lancaster Latino leader who often dined at El Maizal, says he’s looking forward to tasting Flora’s food.
“I think it’s always a positive thing” when a new minority-owned business opens to serve the community, Zabala says.
Flora says she was sad to leave her job handling invoices and receiving for Martin Appliance, but she’s excited to begin this new venture.
“I’m humbled God has given me the opportunity to do this,” she says. “I cook with passion and a lot of attention to detail.”
“I’m going to try to feature something different monthly,” Flora says, while keeping the menu small to maintain consistency. Fortunately, Flora says, her lifetime of cooking has taught her a valuable lesson: there are “infinite ways to season and prepare.”
• 306 North Mulberry Street, Lancaster
• Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; and Saturday 8 a.m.-10 p.m.