African American Studies
Summarized by Alan C. Ventura
Maribel Gonzalez is a small business owner in the Bronx and serves as sole operator of The South of France restaurant. As part of the Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project, she sits with Fordham University senior Bethany Fernandez to share her experience of running a business during the pandemic.
Gonzalez begins by looking back at the history of the establishment, revealing the love story which gave The South of France its name and explaining the Puerto Rican-American roots of the restaurant’s cuisine. Gonzalez then shifts to reflect on the interactive pre-pandemic life in the Bronx and, by comparison, laments the missing community atmosphere of the South Bronx restaurant where people gathered for events, charitable meetings, and social gatherings. In spite of the increased workload and lack of support during the pandemic, Gonzalez continues to operate with the same philosophies, dedication, and spirit that made The South of France special and encourages customers to remember them and come back.
In recounting the tale of how she obtained control over the restaurant, Gonzalez details how her mother was abused and disrespected by The South of France’s original owner, leading to a legal battle and Gonzalez becoming the owner unbeknownst to him. Gonzalez then retired from the radio and television industry to focus on raising her daughter and helping her mother run the successful restaurant, allowing her to balance work and family life.
Gonzalez then gets into her personal struggles during the pandemic, including lost sleep and mental anguish, while continuing to run a restaurant and deliver food to the Bronx community. Gonzalez discusses the importance of positivity and faith in maintaining her business and serving her customers, despite the clear challenges she faces. The customers that have supported The South of France even during these trying times has had an ostensible emotional impact on Gonzalez, and she reflects on the times when she has cried with or given pep talks to customers during the pandemic as a means of offering emotional support. In making the most of a bad situation, Gonzalez explains how she has collaborated with Minerva Aponte to feed healthcare workers in the Bronx, providing hundreds of meals to hospitals and community centers around the borough.
Gonzalez discusses the financial challenges of running a restaurant during the pandemic, including reduced income and increased costs for ingredients and cleaning supplies. Be it the increased effort and time put into the process of buying ingredients and supplies in multiple locations or limited hours and staff, Gonzalez acknowledges the need to find ways to support herself and her community despite these challenges. Even still, Gonzalez reflects on the resilience and strength she has found in herself during this time, and how she is trying to take care of herself while also helping others.
Gonzalez makes clear that the work that she and so many other members of the Bronx community are doing during the pandemic is essential work, as it involves risking their health to provide services for the community at large. To this end, Gonzalez expresses gratitude for people's awareness and appreciation of her work and remains hopeful for the future. Gonzalez closes by offering advice to aspiring restaurant owners, emphasizing the importance of passion, planning, and self-reliance.
Naison, Mark, "Maribel Gonzalez Interview Part 1" (2023). Oral Histories. 352.