COAL TOWNSHIP - Last year, Jesús Sánchez was overwhelmed with the news that his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and entered into a mild depression. One day in December, he went to the Susquehanna River near Tedd's Landing in Shamokin Dam and looked out over the water.

"I relaxed there. It made me feel good," he said.

It was this moment he references when explaining why he chose to call his new authentic Mexican restaurant, set to open soon at The Plaza at Coal Township, El Rio, or "the river" in Spanish.

Sánchez, 48, of Shamokin Dam, who came to America from Mexico 32 years ago, said what he hopes was the final inspection of the restaurant occurred Wednesday. If he's given the go-ahead, he can open soon, perhaps in as little as two weeks.

"It will be a good thing for the area. We thought it needed something different here, and I think a lot of people are looking forward to it," he said.

Sánchez also owns Casa Sanchez, located in the Econo Lodge in Shamokin Dam, which has been open for almost six years. He's found success in a location that seemed a curse to other business owners. Sánchez said he used to drive past the hotel and see a different restaurant every six months.

In fact, Shamokin Dam borough manager Ed Hovenstine said the former businesses in that space were in and out so quickly the only one he can quickly recall is a sports-themed bar.

Same strategy

In Coal Township, Sánchez plans to use the same simple strategy: good food, good prices and good service.

Inside the 4,200-square-foot area, adjacent to Panda King Chinese Buffet, earlier this week, dozens of tables and chairs were stacked on one side, waiting to be organized on the main floor. With additional booths, the restaurant will seat at least 200 people.

Decorations are already on the walls, and electricity, water, gas, sewer and kitchen equipment is already working. Sánchez will be applying for a liquor license.

Welcomed at plaza

Sánchez was lured to the area by plaza owners Mike Timmons and Doug Bercu, of Timber Development Corp., based in Atlanta, Ga., and Longwood, Fla. They have been extending the invitation to him for years.

"I kept hearing there were a lot of people in Shamokin driving to his restaurant (in Shamokin Dam)," Bercu said. "Around here, there's no competition for Mexican food."

The restaurant will be a draw for the shopping center, he believes.

"The food is awesome, and he's a great operator. He's got a good atmosphere that Shamokin needs," he said.

Hovenstine said the Shamokin Dam location has a wide selection and variety on their menu.

"They're great. There are no similar restaurants here. When people say they're going for Mexican, they say they're going for Casa Sanchez," he said.

Sánchez is a respectable businessman who cooperates with the borough and always makes sure that any changes are permitted by the borough, Hovenstine said.

He mentioned the buffet Sánchez provides when he hosts the Central Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce meetings at his restaurant.

Beth Bedisky, of Danville, said she comes to the Shamokin Dam restaurant once a week.

"I have a thing for Mexican food. I like spicy, I like it hot. It's like my second home," she said.

Bedisky was at the restaurant Tuesday for lunch with friends, Nickie Cole, of Montoursville, and Holly Bedisky, of Northumberland.

"The owner is nice and comes out to talk to us," Beth Bedisky said. "And this is our third chips and salsa," she added, holding up a basket.

15 employees

At the Plaza, El Rio will be located in an empty storefront and the section that was once home to Let's Party, which closed in October 2009.

Sánchez has been hearing positive buzz.

"From what I hear, they (local residents) are happy and excited," he said. "It's something different, something not here. We're trying to bring our culture here, and see if they like it."

There will likely be 15 employees hired at El Rio. An interested job-seeker can check the front door window over the next two weeks to find out when to apply.

The plaza will have four open spaces after El Rio opens. Buona Pizza is under construction now, and Bercu said it might be another month before it opens.