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Making Lemon-Aid: Lincoln Mexican restaurant gets a helping hand
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Making Lemon-Aid: Lincoln Mexican restaurant gets a helping hand

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From a heart transplant to a cross-country move, the Santana family has seen plenty of tough times over the years.

Still, the coronavirus pandemic has hit Eli and Lisa Santana harder than anything. 

They own Pancho Villa, a Mexican restaurant at 5800 Cornhusker Highway. Lisa Santana, who suffers from heart problems and underwent a transplant nearly two years ago, said she has a weakened immune system so Eli must stay away from work to avoid contracting the virus and spreading it to her.

Now, the family is getting a helping hand from a newly formed local nonprofit, Making Lemon-Aid, which sells hats, T-shirts and candles to raise funds, while encouraging community members to eat at Pancho Villa and other restaurants hit hard by the pandemic.

Stacy Ford Bingham, who formed Making Lemon-Aid, said she heard the Santanas' story and had to find a way to help. She said she hopes to provide $10,000 to Pancho Villa before moving on to raise funds for other small businesses struggling because of the pandemic. 

"I can't just not do anything," Bingham said.

Before the pandemic, Eli and Lisa Santana ran the restaurant mostly by themselves, with help from their four children and two employees. Now, Lisa Santana said, the entire family is self-isolating at home. Her husband only works when the restaurant is closed to customers.

Years ago, the Santanas had a small restaurant near a Greyhound bus station in Phoenix. But once U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents began conducting raids in the neighborhood, Lisa Santana said, much of their clientele began to avoid the area, and they were forced to move their business. They came to Nebraska to be near Eli's family in Grand Island, and they opened Pancho Villa in 2010.

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Things were good until the pandemic, which closed dining rooms for weeks.

"I feel like we've had one setback after another," she said. 

Being away from the restaurant as it struggles has been hard, Lisa Santana said, especially since Pancho Villa is a core part of what being a family means to them. 

"When you own your family business, you just literally put your blood, sweat and tears into it," she said. 

Takeout orders are helping the family stay afloat, Lisa Santana said, but their income is less than half of normal. She said she's thankful to Pancho Villa's regulars, who have been supportive of the business throughout the pandemic.

Government assistance hasn't been as generous nor as useful as it was made out to be, Lisa Santana said. Paycheck Protection Program funds can only be used to pay employees, and bills are starting to pile up elsewhere, she said. 

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And, on top of the financial struggles, the family is largely isolated inside their home, which hasn't been easy. It's especially hard on Eli Santana that he cannot work, she said, as he used to work 15- to 18-hour days to keep the business running smoothly.

Throughout all of this, Lisa Santana said, the family can't help but feel like things are stacked against them. She said many of the vendors they get their ingredients from refuse to give small businesses a break. Additionally, a rise in beef prices is forcing Pancho Villa to raise its prices, which could hurt sales. 

Eli Santana, who doesn't speak fluent English, said the situation is heartbreaking, as it has been his dream since childhood to own his own restaurant. It hurts to be unable to go work, he said, but he's afraid he'll get his wife sick. 

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But Eli Santana said kindness like that of Making Lemon-Aid is what the family has become accustomed to since moving to Nebraska, and he's grateful to his regular customers for their support. 

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Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or nmcconnell@journalstar.com.

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A Lincoln native, Nick McConnell joined the Journal Star in 2019, covering breaking news and general assignment stories.

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