Drury Inn's "Hospitality Super Hero" Says New LIfe In Crestwood "Is Good"

Carlos Cuartas and his family fled Cali, Columbia, 10 years ago

Carlos Cuartas, a maintenance engineer at the Drury Inn near Forest Park, was honored for his exceptional service. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
10/09/2009 - Carlos Cuartas is a "hospitality hero," an honor recently bestowed upon him by the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission for his "exceptional service" as a maintenance engineer.

Cuartas has been part of the employee team at Drury Hotels for nine years, first at the Drury Plaza Hotel at the Arch and currently at the year-old Drury Inn & Suites near Forest Park.

But Cuartas has another story to tell, a story far removed from his home in Crestwood and his work as an all-around fix-it man with Drury Inn. From a table in the breakfast room of the Drury Inn, Cuartas told of how he and his young family came to live in the United States.

It was 10 years ago that Carlos Cuartas was forced to uproot his family from their home in Cali, Colombia, for a move to the safer environs of the United States. Upon arrival, the family lived in Kirkwood before buying a home seven years ago on Torigney Drive in Crestwood.

Cuartas had enjoyed success as a small business owner in Cali. His store sold hardware, art frames, and even housed an art gallery. He and his wife, Alejandra, had a young family to raise -- two girls, Andrea and Maria, and a son, Carlos -- and the Cali hardware store had provided them with a good living.

Cali is Columbia's third largest city, a thriving cosmopolitan steeped in Spanish history and culture. But Cali was not without its troubles. Beginning in the mid-1990s the city became one of the cocaine capitals of the world -- home to the Cali Cartel.

Cuartas said he was targeted by extortionists who expected the successful businessman to share with them his wealth.

"I had a problem with terrorists. I had to close my business because they called: "We need money for our people,'" Cuartas was told.

Cuartas refused to pay, saying that he worked for his family, and no one else. Making matters worse, extortionists learned that the Cuartas family was planning a trip to Europe.

Maintenance Engineer Supervisor David Stienkemeyer staples upholstery to the bottom of a chair as Carlos Cuartas looks on. With six floors and 164 rooms, the two men are kept busy at the new Drury Inn & Suites near Forest Park. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"I was told, 'you don't have money for my friends, but you have money for travel,'" Cuartas said.

Cuartas described how, six weeks later, he and his three children were tailed in a park by four men in a slow moving car. Terrified, the family ran for safety. There was another incident in which strangers had actually entered his home while the family was away.

Fearing for the safety of his family, Cuartas closed his business and relocated his family to the U.S. He chose St. Louis as his new home because a boyhood friend of his, Fernando Torres, had lived in the Gateway City for 30 years. Torres works as a court translator for St. Louis County.

Cuartas had visions of opening his own business in St. Louis, a store similar to the one he operated in Cali. But he said a small store can't compete against larger ones offering cheap import items. "Impossible" he said of his desire to open his own business. Still, he's keeping his eye out for an opportunity.

A Hospitality Super Hero

Cuartas was among seven "Hospitality Super Heroes" to be honored Sept. 17 during the annual St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission luncheon.

"Carl is a great example of the 'never say no' approach we take. We can always count on him to make our guests feel good about having stayed here," said Douglas Johaningmeyer, general manager of Drury Inn & Suites at the Hampton Avenue and Interstate 44 location.

Cuartas is one of two maintenance engineers working at the new Drury Hotel. His supervisor, David Stienkemeyer, jokes that he taught Cuartas everything he knows about hotel repair work. Last Monday afternoon, Stienkemeyer, who grew up in Crestwood, was in his office reattaching legs on a chair.

"With a brand new, $20 million building, you wouldn't think we would have much to do. But there is always something that needs to be done," Stienkemeyer said.

Cuartas does most of the hotel's preventive maintenance. He visits each of the hotel's 164 rooms three times a year, checking dozens of items -- from hairdryers to drawer handles, showerheads to air conditioning units -- making sure they are all working properly.

Carlos Cuartas receives further congratulations from Drury Inn & Suites (near Forest Park) General Manager Douglas Johaningmeyer. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Cuartas said he enjoys his job.

"Every day is different. That's what I enjoy. Every day is a new situation. Maybe the AC is not working properly, or a lock is broke. A guest came to me once because his shoes are broken," Cuartas said.

Cuartas' English, too, is a bit broken. But he speaks his adopted language incredibly well for someone who has lived in this country for only 10 years.

His first and only job in the U.S. was with Drury Hotels. Cuartas has no regrets joining the Drury team. He describes the Drury family as "incredible" and praises the family for the positive, friendly work atmosphere they have created.

When asked about his new home in Crestwood, Cuartas answered simply, "Is good."

He and Alejandra have been married for 24 years. His two daughters, Andrea, 18, and Maria, 16, attend Lindbergh High School. He said the district has provided his three children with excellent educations. His son, Carlos, 21, attends the University of Missouri-Columbia.

A photo of Carlos Cuartas sporting a red Superman cape hangs in the maintenance engineer office at the Drury Inn -- a hospitality super hero with a smile on his face and a story to tell of an old life in South America, and a new one to the north.

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