Gerardo “Jerry” Hernandez, owner of , is familiar with hot spots—ones that lie in his busy kitchen and ones he faced over seas while serving as a Marine.
Hernandez almost lost his life during one of his two deployments to Iraq, and he says it's those experiences that have shaped him into a successful restaurant owner here in Glen Ellyn.
Hernandez is no stranger to working in restaurants. From an early age he began working at his family's Mexican restaurants, , including the one in Glen Ellyn.
Wanting a different path for himself, Hernandez enlisted as a Marine in 2003 and went on to serve two tours of duty in Iraq.
“During high school and even as a kid, I was fascinated with the military and seeing it in movies,” said Hernandez. “I always wanted to be in the military and then once 9/11 happened, it was the final push for me to do something and to make a difference.”
Hernandez would later take the lessons learned from his experience as a Marine to come home and open his own business, following in the footsteps of his famiy.
He continued training in Okinawa, Japan after stints in San Diego and Camp Pendleton in California. Then Hernandez was shipped out to the small city Karmah, Iraq in March 2004, near the turbulent city of Fallujah.
That April, he received news that his battalion, along with a few other battalions, would be part of an assault on Fallujah -- the site where several Blackwater contractors were killed.
Their mission was to find those responsible.
“We didn’t find the specific person but once we got in there there was no shortage of people shooting at us,” he said.
In May, the battalions pulled out when the Iraqi government decided to secure the city from its enemies. Unfortunately, he explained, the city “went back to where it was before we got there. It became the safe haven of terrorists in the area.”
Returning for another tour
After that experience, his next assignment was Ramadi, Iraq, another dangerous city.
“I wasn’t against going back but I felt that I was pushing my luck because of the things we saw in Fallujah, I was lucky to be alive.”
The three-pronged mission there was to win the hearts and minds of the people, secure the area, and remove terrorists occupying the area.
But on April 23, 2005, that mission almost claimed his life. Hernandez was on night patrol security at a six-way intersection and saw a pile of trash, he thought nothing of it. But the pile contained an IED and it detonated as Hernandez entered his Humvee to leave the area. He sustained injuries to his arms, legs, lungs, heart and liver and endured 10 surgeries.
“I was conscious the whole time; I knew what was happening as soon as it happened,” he said. “It hurt but it felt like I got punched in the nose. I couldn’t breathe because both of my lungs were punctured. My right was punctured and my left collapsed from the force of the blast," said Hernandez.
"On my right side of my chest, I took a piece of shrapnel to the armpit area. It went up and tore all my nerves in my right arm and it punctured my lung. That piece went in and fragments hit my heart and my liver.”
He was flown to a Baghdad hospital and doctors operated on his lungs and heart. He then went to Germany for stabilization and then for more surgeries and wound cleanings at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“It was depressing because my guys were still overseas,” he said. “They’re still over there and I’m back home. There wasn’t much I could do. You get into a funk.”
In May 2006, he received a medical discharge and returned to Glendale Heights to his wife and kids and began looking for a new career.
Making a new life
Serving as a Marine gave Hernandez the financial means to study at the , but finding a job was not an easy task, especially with his damaged right hand. So, he went to a familiar place: working at one of his family’s restaurants.
“I was trying to get away from it but there I found myself again,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘All right, I guess this is it. This is my calling.’”
With the money he saved from his military career, he was thinking about opening up another Mexican restaurant. In 2008, he found a location on Roosevelt Road but it was too close to his family’s restaurants. Revisiting that site, he thought it could be a bar and grill.
“No one has ever done anything like this in my family,” he said. “The way I looked at it was that a restaurant is a restaurant, no matter how you do it. If you have good food and service, the people will come even though you’re making different food.”
Tapping into his family's expertise, Hernandez's brother and father pooled their capital to buy the space for Ellyn’s Tap & Grill, 940 Roosevelt Road in the Baker Hill Shopping Center. Since opening in 2009, the eatery has attracted a steady clientele who come for burgers, entrees and drinks.
Hernandez said the business has been good despite a weak economy and says he's beginning to see a regular clientele coming through the doors.
“The thing about us is that I don’t know if things are picking up because of the economy getting better or because we just are becoming more and more established,” he said. “We don’t have those great years that other places had when people were just spending money. I don’t have those years to compare to. For me, we opened up slow and it’s been slowly getting better and better.”
He explained that transition from a military life to a civilian one took some time. But those skills of structure and discipline have been paying off.
“I was 24-years-old when we opened here and I made this place,” he said. “I’m still open. Places open up and close all the time. I was 24-years-old and I had the skills necessary to manage my place. I had the leadership skills, order, discipline and commitment -- all that stuff is from the Marine Corps. I was doing 70 and 80 hours here in the beginning, but that was nothing for me. I’ve gone days without sleeping overseas. This was easy compared to what I did overseas.”