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Colombian Accountant Uproots To Rebuild Hackensack Cafe Destroyed By Fire

Julio Guerra left his job as an accountant in Colombia to rebuild Citrus Cafe on Main Street in Hackensack, after it was destroyed by an electrical fire in November 2014. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
A fire destroyed the cafe in October 2014. Photo Credit: Hackensack Fire Department
Citrus Cafe as it stands today. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
Guerra joined his mom, Luciana Marulanda, who had been working as a chef at Citrus Cafe in Hackensack. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
Arepa de Choclo from Citrus Cafe. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
Citrus Cafe, 305 Main St., Hackensack. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Walking into work feels like going home for Hackensack's Citrus Cafe & Bakery owner Julio Guerra.

But that hasn't always been the case.

The first time Guerra ever saw his cafe was in March 2015 — and it was in complete disarray. 

Just five months prior, a fire had torn through the Main Street eatery, where his mother — Luciana Marulanda — had been working as a chef. 

Citrus' former owner didn't have the resources to rebuild it, but Guerra felt undertaking the cafe as a new business venture would be the perfect opportunity to join his mom overseas.

He hadn't seen any pictures of it when he agreed to rebuild it, so walking in for the first time after it had been untouched after the fire was a wake up call.

"Seeing a place destroyed and rebuilding it from the beginning was tough," said Guerra, 42. 

"We had to close for a year, and I wondered if the customers had erased Citrus from their memories."

The beginning was the hardest part for Guerra, who knew nothing about building a business in the U.S., and very little about the new culture.

Having a background in accounting helped. Speaking very little English, however, did not.

"When the inspectors came, I had to find someone to translate for me," he said. "I didn't even know I needed building permits or anything from the health department."

"All of the inspectors came and I had to find someone to translate for me

On top of rebuilding the cafe, Guerra had to learn how life worked in this unfamiliar country that he now called home.

After eight months of learning and growing, Citrus' new owner finally had a business. He filled the menu with family recipes, and the facility itself filled with authentic Colombian accents.

Colorful paintings of churches and portraits from Guerra's country hang on the shop's grey walls. The cafe's televisions broadcast live sporting events from back home.

He reopened the shop to the public in November 2015 — exactly a year after the fire — but still had to figure out how to bring people back to the shop.

"I started to socialize with people and and held different promotions," he said. "It was hard because there’s a lot of competition."

Slowly but surely, Guerra was able to grow a clientele base who came back for the Colombian coffee, arepas (corn cakes) and his mom's acclaimed bandeja paisa — a typical Colombian meal consisting of beans, pork belly, white rice, fried egg and plantains.

"I want the people to know what food from Colombia is like," Guerra said. "And for Colombians, coming here should be like being back home."

Citrus Cafe, 305 Main St., Hackensack.

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