Dreams come true on Hardin Road near the intersection with Oak Street in Forest City.
"I've done many jobs, cleaned stores and banks and cooked, but here waiting on the tables and cooking, this is my life," Alba Hernandez said after the lunch crowd cleared at Mario's Italian Restaurant. "This is my dream come true."
And having three daughters who are academic superstars doesn't hurt either.
Alba said, "I'm happy and give God thanks."
Mario is a little more subdued, but he is clearly both the proud papa and a guy who loves his daughters. "They've worked hard all their lives," he said of the three young women. He's almost always smiling.
Carina, the oldest, graduates medical school in May and already has a job working at the hospital where she studied, SUNY Upstate Medical University. SUNY is the State University of New York.
"I go to visit them every year at Christmas and no matter that I now have two doctor's degrees, I still bus tables. If you're gonna be here, you're gonna work," Carina said. Sure, but have their parents been an encouragement to their oldest daughter?
"They never forced us to do anything," she said. "You know how some parents say their kids have to do one thing or another. They said we could do whatever makes us happy," Carina said.
Her other doctorate is in chemistry.
Her new job is in internal medicine. She looks to work in either gastroenterology or oncology.
In 2000 she received a certificate for academic excellence from President Clinton and Secretary of Education Dick Riley.
Mario said they have always worked hard even when they were little kids.
And sometimes the help from their daughters would come in handy when things get "crazy."
The popular restaurant, which the couple opened in 2005, sometimes packs out.
"It's hard when things get crazy," Mario said. "Some people don't understand that we make everything fresh. You can't rush good food, so some people get frustrated." He smiled and tipped his head to one side and said, "It's okay. We deal with it."
Alba is a little more animated. As she described "crazy times," she waved her hands and gestured in all directions. "Sometimes it's so crazy I can't answer the phone, so I say to Mario, 'You answer the phone. I've got customers to take care of.' "
Next in birth order is daughter, Jessica. She has two nursing degrees, one from UNC-Charlotte and one from Duke. In case you're counting, we're now up to five college degrees among the three daughters.
She works in orthopedic neuro-surgery.
Jessica said, "My dad is more the visionary. My mom is the force that moves things forward. He's the introvert and she's the extravert who loves to be around people. Both of them modeled hard work."
Sixteen years serving hungry folks from Rutherford County has seen some money go to pay student loans.
"We've had five loans, but that was all for the four-year college. After that the girls did everything, worked hard and paid their own way," Mario said.
Jessica's daughter, 12-year-old Ashley, is the couple's only grandchild.
"Tell everybody that restaurant is my home. I grew up there," Ashley said. When she heard she was going to be in the newspaper, she wore a big smile.
Daughter number three, and soon-to-be college degree number seven, is Giovanna. When she graduated NC State eight years ago, she went to work for the Human Vaccine Institute at Duke. As of this year, she is working on her PhD from Wake Forest. She is studying in a program that deals with molecular and cellular bioscience, but is not sure which topic will be her final field of study and validation.
Of the three, she is the only one to finish high school locally. She spent her senior year at Thomas Jefferson Academy.
She said of Mario and Alba, "They instilled a work ethic in all three of us. We were always working. In a way, a restaurant is confining because you always have to be there, but in another way it is a blessing, because you get to watch the evolution of families. We got to cater the wedding for a girl we first knew when she was eight years old. We got to watch her grow up through her taste buds."
She said of her dad, "He never minds fixing special meals for customers. If someone is allergic to this or that, he changes the dish to suit the customer. That can be hard when things get crazy, but he doesn't mind."
She also said, "When we hear of long-time customers passing, we cry."
So much of life is about the spirit that comes into play. Grouchy and mean can ruin a day at the beach. Sweetness and kindness can soften the pain of a broken leg. Alba's love for her dream come true and her work with the public may best be summed up by her irrepressible smile and something she believes deeply. She said, "I don't cook. I wake up every morning and God cooks through me."
The restaurant will be closed the last week in May for Carina's wedding.