The FedEx deliveryman walks into Casa Sanchez on a quiet weekday afternoon and immediately goes to Marta Sanchez and gives her a hug. “I’m sorry about your mom,” he tells her.
She thanks him and asks if he wants something to drink or eat. That seems to be how things work around here.
Marta’s mother, arguably both the biggest soft touch and the most successful businesswoman on 24th Street, died of a heart attack on July 6 at the age of 82, while on the job. She left behind a family business that would seem quaint by today’s standards if it didn’t happen to work so well.
“This,” says Marta, gesturing toward the restaurant, “was our living room. That’s where we ate our family meals, where we had parties, where we did everything.” Marta, who has almost the same name as her mother, was raised to help run the family business.
All of Martha Sanchez’s five children are involved in the business. So, to varying degrees, are her 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Once a Sanchez can do basic math — at around age 7 — they can be found standing on a milk crate behind the register, helping to ring up orders.
“She said she was the luckiest mom,” says Marta, “because her kids came to visit every day.” Everyone in the family not only works together but lives together — all on the same block in the Excelsior.
Martha Sanchez was born Martha Rodriguez in Fresnillo, a city in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1929. Her family owned the local candy store.
According to her brother, Felipe, she displayed a craftiness about money from an early age. Once he says, the two were attending a baptism. It was the tradition for the Padrino at the baptism to toss a handful of coins onto the ground for the children to run after. “This is how smart she was,” says Felipe. “Before he could throw, she jumped up and caught all the money he had in his hand.” The two siblings ran away before anyone could make them give the money back, and used it as a down payment for a soccer ball.
Martha came to San Francisco in 1950, at the age of 21, and found a job making tortillas in a small storefront on Fillmore Street. It was there that she met her husband, Robert Sanchez, whose parents happened to own the business. “Originally, he was her supervisor,” says Sanchez’s daughter. “But it wasn’t long before he was working for her.”
Although Martha would go on to have several successful businesses in the food industry, including a deli in Noe Valley, a Mexican bakery and store in the Excelsior, and a restaurant, she didn’t like to cook, her daughter says.
Instead, she preferred the business side of things. In the 1970s, a price war between tortilla manufacturers threatened the business. Martha decided to go into salsa, and Casa Sanchez became the first packaged salsa sold at Safeway.
Martha displayed a way with money beyond her business ventures. The months from August to October of 2000, when Martha won more than $36,000 at various slot machines, are family legend. On the wall, a frieze of Polaroids shows her triumphant in front of different slot machines, like a hunter with fresh kill.
Also legendary, however, was Martha’s generosity. She was known in the neighborhood as a person who lent money and gave food, advice and support to anyone who needed it, often without being asked. “She didn’t judge people,” Marta says. “She served the wealthy and the homeless in the same manner.”
Marta gestures to Victor Hernan, who is sitting at a table alone, sipping on a drink. Hernan, she says, is a fellow parishioner at St. Peter’s on Florida Street. He knew Martha for 33 years. A skilled carpenter, he has worked on Casa Sanchez’s roof and done repairs around the restaurant for years. One day he was walking by Martha’s house and thought it looked a little shabby. So he repainted her entire house. For free.
Martha was, however, nobody’s fool, her daughter says. If someone came in and said they were short of money, she would give them food, but she kept a running tally of how much people owed her on little pieces of paper clipped together. Customers thought she would forget, but she never did.
Martha worked at the restaurant seven days a week, playing host to a steady stream of visitors during business hours. One guy used to come in and sing to her, her daughter says. The mailman made the restaurant his last stop so he could hang out with Martha at the end of his shift.
“It was like a Mexican non-alcoholic version of Cheers,” says Marta. “She was here every day. She would always joke that she had to taste every margarita to be sure it was made well.”
The day before her death was the busiest day ever. Two big groups wanted to have a party on the same day, so she agreed to have them both. “It’s good that she got to see that,” says her daughter. “She worked until the last minute of her life.
“She was following the American dream. And she said that she got it.”
The final rosary will be said for Martha Sanchez tonight at Casa Sanchez at 5 p.m. After that there will be a party celebrating her life, with the SoSa Sisters performing from 6 to 8 p.m.