She’d had things go missing from the patio of her Riverside restaurant before. Chairs. Tables. Little knickknacks.
But when her beloved red bird figurine, which she’d inherited from her late grandmother, Clara, went missing last week, Chiquita’s Corner owner Stephanie Sandoval was livid and more than a little hurt.
The bird, small enough to fit in her palm, had sat on the windowsill of her walk-up restaurant at 11th and Bitting since she opened it in 2015. In the mornings as she opened the store, she’d talk to the bird, asking it to watch over her and help her cook the best she could. But in her heart, she was talking to her grandmother.
Somehow, though, the little bird flew home on Tuesday morning. When Sandoval opened the shop, she found the bird wrapped in toilet paper and stashed in a corner, apparently returned by a thief with a conscience – and possibly a social media account.
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It all started one morning last week when Sandoval arrived to open her popular shop, which sells tacos and enchiladas like her grandma used to make. The shop, the former home of Squeezer’s Palace, is walk-up only, though Sandoval has set up a colorful and lively dining area on the patio outside. The neighborhood loves the restaurant, which sits beside two equally colorful businesses – R Coffeehouse and Songbird Juice Co. – and people from all over town drive to Riverside to get the Mexican specialties at Chiquita’s Corner.
That day, Sandoval was cleaning the patio when she looked at the windowsill where her bird was always perched and noticed it was gone. She called her husband to see whether he’d moved it. But he confirmed what she’d feared: The bird must have been taken.
“Whoever stole my red bird know that some things mean more than others,” she wrote. “Some objects bring back feelings and memories and protect me and my shop. Understand that it is very, very bad to steal something that carries immense energy – that because you stole that from me and its meant to protect me that it will only bring you very bad luck. Energy is real. I would like my red back – in the same spot it was before.”
Clara, a great cook and a sweet lady, died when Sandoval was 16, but Sandoval’s memories of her never faded.
“She just really liked red birds and she used to sing with them all the time,” Sandoval said. “She’d sit on the porch and drink coffee, and that was her thing. Before she passed, she gave me that little guy. It was one of two things I kept from her.”
Sandoval never attached the bird to the building, mainly because doing so would have violated her lease agreement. But she never thought someone would take it.
Sandoval’s post was liked by 176 people and was shared 86 times. In the following days, she heard from many customers who wanted to console her. A couple of regulars even brought her some new red bird figurines, which was sweet, she said, but not the same.
Then, on Tuesday, she noticed the clump of toilet paper sitting near the soda dispenser on the patio. She unwrapped it, and her red bird was inside.
Sandoval said she felt like her late grandma had something to do with it.
“At first, people think I’m nuts, but I truly believe that she’s still around and what she wants to come to me as is a bird. If that’s what she chooses, that’s what it is. She watches over me and she protects my shop. She is here, and I think the bird coming back just proves she is here.”
Her husband wants her to put the bird inside the shop, where no one can get it again. But Sandoval said she doesn’t want to live like that. She put it back where it always was, and that’s where she hopes it will stay.
“A lot of people shared that post, so I’m sure that whoever took it might have seen it,” she said. “I’m really just grateful I got it back.”