"Going to and from work, I saw the For Sale sign in the restaurant window for a really long time. I didn’t give it much thought.
I was in the medical field of respiratory therapy for 15 years. Then I came to a transition in my career path. Life throws you curveballs, and makes you reevaluate. It opened my eyes to a lot of things in life. When I came to the crossroads, it was scary.
That For Sale sign was a tiny flicker of light in a very dark sky. You could see the pinpoint of the light far away in the distance. Barely visible. It was small… so small.
As months passed and my career in healthcare went through a serious transition, that little flicker of light getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer. It got brighter. It turned from a tiny pinpoint, to a visible light, to a burning candle. Then it became a bonfire.
As I started looking into the idea of buying and opening the restaurant, I kept thinking, ‘I could do this’. It felt attainable. I had eaten at the restaurant when the previous owner had it. Without even realizing it, in the back of my mind I kept thinking about how I would redecorate the space as my own.
A lot of people assume that it was always my dream to open a restaurant. I do think it was meant to be, but it’s not something I always intended to do. It was like a daydreaming thought, way in the back of my mind. I wasn’t making plans or seriously thinking about it at the time, when the wheels in the back of my mind were turning.
I purchased the building in August 2019. I completely gutted the dining room, rehabbed infrastructure in the back of the house and renovated the upstairs apartments back to their original beauty. That girl was built over 150 years ago, so she’s got some old bones. I uncovered beautiful brick wall and beautiful original tin ceiling.
I remember thinking I could open in just a few weeks. Yeah… NO. Everything takes longer than you think, everything gets pushed back.
I had a realization about a year ago. I was always so go-go-go, with so much to do and so much to get ready for. I realized I wasn’t always present in the moment, because I always felt I had so much to take care of. I wanted everything to be just right.
My baby is my beautiful chandelier. That was something that was in my mind’s eye from before I even thought about buying the place. I knew I wanted something big. I designed the piece, and a close family friend, Jeremy, did the assembly and electricity of the design.
I love my patio. As soon as it gets nice out, I have a really, really nice patio. You don’t feel like you’re in Downtown Saginaw out there. There’s a little vegetable garden out there. Last year, I started doing Friday night live music out on the patio, and that will resume this year.
There’s still so much I am in the process of learning. The feelings of newness are still there. Sometimes the fear of failure still creeps in. It’s been over a year since I’ve opened, I’ve had more months under COVID restrictions than I have had open at full service.
Owning and running a restaurant has been very challenging but there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
I knew I wanted the restaurant’s name to be something to do with my sisters. My sisters are my heart, and I tell you that I am in business with both of them. My little sister Mikaela is much younger than me. She helps run the AirBnb portion of the upstairs apartments. Mikaela is my heart.
Valerie is my big sister. She and I are exactly a year and two weeks apart. We’re both March babies—it’s a special month for our family. I wanted my restaurant to be as beautiful as my sister Valerie was…is.
Valerie died very suddenly in an accident not that long ago. None of us saw it coming. Our family was shattered.
Valerie is where my heart swells. The restaurant is named in honor and in memory of her. When I would think about the name of the restaurant, what kept coming to my mind was, ‘Valerie’s… Valerie’s… Valerie’s…’ I kept pushing the thought back. I wasn’t sure my heart could handle her name being out there, said aloud every day.
The logo of Valerie’s Downtown is her actual signature.
I struggled with how I would feel about strangers finding out about such a private part of my life. But after a few weeks, my heart accepted it. My heart knew the name was right.
I appreciate when people who knew Valerie care enough to bring her up to me with a fond memory or a mention. I like talking about her with people who knew who she was and loved her.
My big sister Valerie was a social butterfly while I was the wallflower. She was the cheerleader and everybody’s friend. She was and is a beautiful, beautiful person. So many things that I want to do, I want to do better than the best I can do. Because it’s for her. That’s why I work so hard.
There’s so much richness of community to the City of Saginaw. Standing back and observing my restaurant, I love seeing it bring people together. I love seeing people catching up with a friend they haven’t seen in a long time. They’ll sit there and talk for 2 hours, even if they aren’t eating. I love that feeling of togetherness.
I included “Downtown” in my restaurant’s name because I’m proud of where I’m located. I’m proud to be part of the Downtown community, and I’m proud to say that.
I have a really freakin’ huge Mexican family. I have so many relatives in Saginaw that it is likely I could walk right by one of them on the sidewalk and not even know they’re related to me.
All of my immediate family has something on the menu named after them. Our most popular sandwich is Valerie’s Own. My dad is also a sandwich. Mikaela is a salad. My mom is, of course, on the Mexican menu. The only one not on the menu is me.
My staff is small. My cook, Wanda, is amazing. She is my very, very strong right hand. My parents, my sister and my extended family have been a huge help to me. Our close family friend, Jeremy, has been amazing. My cousin Sarah is right there with Mikaela with how much she’s done to help. On opening day, she and Mikaela put on their aprons and waitressed for me.
I’m a first time small business owner. I don’t have a partner. I own the building and the business. I’m very grateful to have a strong army of a support system. My dad is the resident handyman, and my mom is the talent behind most of my recipes, especially the Mexican entrees. I’m blessed.
Before I opened the restaurant, two of the key employees from the former restaurant had planned to stay on and work with me. Within a week of opening day, both had bailed on me. That left me in need of a strong lead server and a cook. I had already pushed back opening day twice before. I was about to lose my mind.
I furnished the restaurant with primarily great second-hand furniture finds. The vibe of ‘eclectic’ is what I’m going for.
My mom loves Facebook Marketplace, and one day she came across a post from a lady who had closed down her restaurant and basically had a whole barn of stuff she was selling. My mom and I decided to drive down just to check out what she had.
The woman’s name was Shari, and she’d had her own fine dining restaurant for 30 some odd years in Auburn. It was Shari’s at the Willard Hilton. We just clicked, right from the start. My mom and I spent 3 hours there the first visit, just talking and talking.
We stayed in touch. Shari helped me get my menu together. She helped me figure out food costs. She helped with things I didn’t even know were a thing, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I call her Mama Shar.
So when those two key people bailed on me, Shari told me not to push back the date again. She said, ‘Don’t push back that date again. I got you. I’ll be there until you find somebody.’
This amazing woman, a culinary trained chef, came out of retirement and supported me for over 3 months while I opened the restaurant. She gave me the gift of herself, without hesitation. Generous doesn’t even begin to describe what kind of person she is. She’s a beautiful, humble woman. I was going down before I even got started, and Mama Shar saved me. She came into my life in such a God way, all because of a last minute trip my mom and I made to see some stuff someone had posted on Facebook Marketplace.
My belief is that you don’t go into business for yourself to get rich. Money was never the driving force for me. When I worked in healthcare, I was killing myself for someone else’s dream. After I made the decision to go into business for myself, I thought, ‘If I was willing to work my ass off for a company that didn’t respect, value or appreciate me, then I am damn sure going to work twice as hard or more for my own business.’
To be a small business owner, you’re never not working. If you’re fully committed, if it truly is your livelihood, there’s not a day you aren’t doing something for your business. Even when we’re not open, I have wheels in my head turning about the restaurant. I have a hundred paper lists floating around everywhere.
The mantra in my head is Un Dia La Vez, which translates from Spanish to One Day At A Time. It’s painted on the wall of my restaurant, and it’s tattooed on my body—in my mother’s handwriting. I repeat it to myself every day. Sometimes, it’s one hour at a time.
Don’t let your fear be bigger than your faith. Don’t let that negative self-dialogue be the loudest voice.
In the restaurant, I have a dozen or so quote boards. They’re painted with chalkboard paint, with different quotes and phrases on them. They cover the whole brick wall. I love when people compliment those quote boards, because I truly believe everything written on them. And as much as I want them to be uplifting and inspirational to my guests, I equally need them as reminders of my own faith as well."