Luis Perez said he “absolutely” sees himself as living the American dream after growing up in poverty in Central America.

And anyone can still make it here in the United States, said Perez, who, with his wife Patty, owns the Elmer’s Restaurant on Ninth Street in Corvallis.

“Work hard, be consistent and somebody will notice you, hold your hand and bring you forward. I experienced that several times,” Perez said.

“I always was a hard worker, wherever I worked. People above me were always willing to give me challenges. They knew, whatever I was assigned, I would get it accomplished,” the 58-year-old Tangent resident said.

Perez’s latest accomplishment is a business award. He won the 2019 Faces of Diversity Award from the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, and will compete against other state winners from across the country for the nationwide award.

The Faces of Diversity Awards program recognizes individuals in the restaurant industry who have realized the American dream through hard work, determination and enterprise.

Perez grew up in Guatemala. He and his three siblings were raised by their single mother.

He had to help earn for the family at a young age, tending a small agricultural plot at age 4, making dress suits as a preteen and doing other jobs.

In 1976, however, a massive earthquake struck Guatemala. Perez’s older siblings had already moved to the United States, and they became concerned about him and his mother, so they helped them move to California. Perez, then 17, learned English mostly by riding the bus and talking to people.

“I would just get on the bus, and if somebody was willing to talk with me, I was willing to talk with them, basically,” Perez said.

He began working for a small greeting card startup, and became a supervisor to 35 employees as the company grew. Then the restaurant world came calling.

Perez originally came to Corvallis in 1995 to open up Senor Sam’s in downtown Corvallis. A few years later, he sold his shares in the business to his partner and ventured into Elmer’s.

That was more than 15 years ago.

His favorite part about the breakfast-based business is interacting with customers, including the many regulars. “Over the years, I’ve met a lot of different people in a lot of different fields,” Perez said.

The Corvallis Elmer’s is active in philanthropy, giving to the Old Mill Center and the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis. The restaurant also supports the Corvallis Fire Department, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, Corvallis High School baseball, and local schools and churches.

Perez said he hasn’t experienced prejudice in Corvallis because he blends in with the system. 

“Customers speak for themselves. I’m proud to have the most popular breakfast place in town,” Perez said.

Oregon State University football games are the busiest times of the year, followed by holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. But Elmer’s is busy much of the time, as the restaurant feeds more than 10,000 customers each month, Perez said.

“Every five months, we feed the equivalent of the city of Corvallis,” he added.

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Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.