Sugar Loaf:--After decades in Orange County, the Cancun Inn will be closing. Owner Israel Campos says it’s time to retire and he is looking to sell the Sugar Loaf business and property. He runs the restaurant with his sister Guadalupe and brother Rudy, who do the cooking. The Mexican restaurant is a favorite with customers and will be missed.
Besides good food, Israel Campos is the draw. A warm and cheerful host, you would never guess the hardships he has gone through on his way to success.
He was born in 1951 to a poor family in the village of Quicayan, in the state of Puebla, Mexico. At the age of seven, Campos lost his father when he was one of four men shot and killed at a card game.
“My uncles were going to take some of us and split up the family. Mom was like a lioness, and said ‘Nobody’s taking anybody,’” he recalled. His mother Hilda would do odd jobs to earn money, bartering food and selling wood for other things, selling bread on consignment for a bakery and later taking in laundry.
The family was so poor the brothers had one pair of pants each and two shirts—one for Sunday. There was no toilet and no running water.
They moved to Mexico City. The family could not afford books and uniforms for school. Israel said they were running wild on the street.
Campos had a blind 16-year-old neighbor, Juan, who played guitar. To earn money, the budding 8-year old entrepreneur suggested to Juan that they should go on buses with the two of them singing and Juan playing. The police caught up to them, and believing Juan must have been abusing the youngster, briefly put him in jail. Campos was sent to an orphanage at first and then authorities told his mother that Israel and his younger brother Mario would be sent to a boarding school run by the military for the poor.
“It changed my life,” he said. “For six years I got a good education; it was amazing. We only came home two times a year.” He graduated at age 14.
Coming to America where family helps
Israel was 20 years old when he came to the US looking for better opportunity.
“I went to my cousin’s apartment house on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. I can never forget- -when I got out of the cab and I looked around, there were cars smoking, people jumping on cars, fires everywhere. It scared the heck out of me and after three days, I said “Hey, cousin, when you going to take me to meet the Americans?”
His cousin worked at a Steak & Brew in Manhattan and got Israel a job there doing dishes. He learned English after work, studying a book of English phrases.
He became a busboy, then moved up in a number of Spanish and Italian restaurant jobs, learning how to cook and work the front of the restaurant. Israel and his brothers worked in various restaurants around New York.
He moved to Las Vegas. “I worked in a French/ Italian restaurant, Chateau Vegas, next to the Desert Inn. And we served Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and other members of the ‘Rat Pack,’” Campos said. “They were incredible people-very generous-it was a party all the time.”
He learned some magic tricks and did “tableside magic,” making cards, utensils and a small scarf disappear and reappear somewhere else. There and at the Bacchanal Room at Caesar’s Palace, customers “were mesmerized by the card tricks I would do from a regular deck of cards,” he said.
He rose to be assistant maître d’ and wine sommelier at Paul Anka’s “Jubilation” restaurant and dance club, but then moved to Newburgh and lived and worked with his brother Rudy, who opened a small Mexican restaurant there. Rudy said he should open his own restaurant.
Israel’s mother sold her small house and came to America. “With that $11,800 in 1989 we first opened up Cancun Inn in New Windsor,” said Campos. The Cancun Inn moved to the former Diana’s Steak House on Dolson Avenue in Middletown, and then to the former Obsessions Gentlemen’s Club on 17M. They were there 15 years.
Friends make it happen
Then the Sugar Loaf Inn became available. “Some wonderful, hard-working customers, a carpenter, electrician and a plumber, who had full-time jobs, helped me out bartering work for meals. And then there was my main guy who made it happen, Brian Oprandy from Oprandy’s Fire and Safety Equipment in Middletown.”
Oprandy offered to loan him money at a favorable rate and install kitchen and fire equipment. “Oh my God, it worked out well,” Campos said. “We’ve been 11 years here in Sugar Loaf--the best town we’ve ever been in as far as clientele.”
Along the way, Campos became an American citizen. “We’re staying put, not going back to Mexico,” he said. “We’ll stay in the USA, the most wonderful, incredible place on earth—really it is.” Campos and his fiancée Dana will enjoy playing more tennis and visiting with his grandchildren in Colorado.
The restaurant will stay open until it’s sold.