Adrian Iraola is an engineer used to overseeing complex projects, most recently the new underground parking structure next to the library. His wife, Lori, runs a riding school out of their Lodi Township home. But they were complete novices when it came to running restaurants.
Their midlife decision to open not one, but two Mexican restaurants must have sounded a little loco to anyone who has owned one. Though Chela’s on South Maple managed to open slightly ahead of schedule in June, few people were surprised that their second restaurant at Stone Plaza fell behind. In early November, the Iraolas were finally at the shopping center at Ellsworth and Stone School roads, testing the ice machine and stocking the cooler for a mid-November opening.
The reason for the delay, Lori explains, was not the demands of restaurant owning but a tragedy in their lives: Around the time the first restaurant was opening, her father, Edward Skipper, was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Skipper–who grew up in the kitchen of the Old German restaurant, where his mother was a cook for thirty-five years–died over the summer.
“It was a rough summer,” says Lori. “It took us a little while to get reoriented.” The one positive note was that the delay gave them time to apply what they’d learned on Maple: “We never dreamed we’d have the kind of numbers we’ve had on a daily basis,” she says. “We had to learn how much to prep–that was the main learning curve.”
The Iraolas’ Stone Plaza neighbor, the Mediterranean Market, draws a large Muslim clientele with its bakery, produce, and halal meats; out of respect, this Chela’s will have no pork on the menu. The Iraolas are substituting turkey instead–turkey pastor and turkey chorizo in the tacos, turkey ham in the Cuban sandwich.
Chela (rhymes with “Stella”) is Adrian Iraola’s mother’s name and a common diminutive for lots of Latina names: “Celia, Cecilia, Graciela–they often get shortened to Chela,” says Lori. Adrian met Lori in Ann Arbor twenty-four years ago. On their first date, he says, “I was making her enchiladas, and I put on some salsa music. I grabbed her and started dancing.” He was amazed: “I was like, Wow! You do know how to dance! It’s like I’m dancing with a Latin woman! And the rest is history.”
Their three kids helped out in the restaurant over the summer. Andrew, twenty-one, at Kalamazoo College, is too far away to help much now, but nineteen-year-old Nicole, at Albion, “is only forty-five minutes away,” says Lori. “I’ve called her and said ‘[sixteen-year-old] Anna’s got a soccer game, and daddy’s got to take her, can you please come home?'”
“Nicole can make a tasty guacamole and salsa,” adds Adrian. Adrian also does a lot of the cooking at Chela’s, “to maintain authenticity of the flavors.”
Chela’s, 4079 Stone School (Stone Plaza), 973-5554. Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. chelasannarbor.com