"Getting married is like starting a restaurant. You have to look into things before you get serious." --Manuel Ortiz on building a successful business (and marriage).
At the restaurant -- new look, time-honored values
On a busy Monday lunch hour, my mother and I went to El Pescador number one, a home-grown chain of Mexican seafood restaurants founded by the Ortiz family in Bell Gardens, two blocks from our family home. When I told my mother about this essay she revealed yet another personal connection to the story.
Doña Isidra Ortiz, the family matriarch, had multiple businesses in her lifetime, among them a jewelry business, and Mom was a happy customer. From inside her blouse, she pulled out a gold chain with a tear-drop pendant: a Virgen de Guadalupe with golden rays carved into the gold radiating behind her.
"I bought this one from her," she said. Our table looked out at the Eastern Avenue traffic. "The one you have I bought from her too. Le compre muchas cosas y todas muy bonitas."
Growing up, we were neighbors with Doña Luz, niece to Doña Isidra, and cousin to Don Manuel, the restaurant founder. The family comes from a long line of business people, or comerciantes, as founder Don Manuel called them. As a widow, Doña Luz supported herself and four daughters while also paying a mortgage by selling thousands of artificial flower arrangements. If there's one thing people in Bell Gardens have, it's drive and remarkable work ethic, making fortunes despite great obstacles.
When Mom and I walked into the restaurant, we recognized Doña Luz's arrangements on every table and wall: silk star lilies, their edges tinged with a tangerine hue. White calla lilies and sunflower garlands hung on the white-washed walls, just above paintings with Rivera-influenced depictions of working-class Mexico.
Covered in Talavera blue and white tiles, the inside of the current Bell Gardens Pescador is up to date with flat screen televisions and a booming sound system. Don Eliazer Ortiz, Sr. is the current owner, and his son Eli junior works alongside him. The hand-tooled wood chairs and tables are spaced out but close enough to create a lively ambiance, a marine motif with a coastal Mexican flavor.
Don Manuel Ortiz opened the first restaurant in 1983. It was much smaller, the booths closer together, but still had the warm feeling each restaurant emits: cordial and fast service, fresh ingredients, and ambiente, a neighborly environment that is one of many secrets to their successful family business.
Mom and I enjoyed ceviche de pescado on a tostada, a guava agua fresca (honestly the best I've ever had), and missed the owner by minutes on that first visit. On my second visit, I met Eli, but not his father, striking up a conversation about the family's great success.
"Each Pescador is individually owned and operated," he told me one afternoon outside the heavy wood doors of the restaurant. Eli's father took over the first Pescador once Don Manuel retired and developed the corner of Lubec Street and Eastern Avenue; it used to be lined with dank, small bars. The City of Bell Gardens was happy to see the Ortiz family take over that corner and improve the look and feel or the business strip.
Although I did not meet the current owner, his staff and family were extremely friendly and open to speaking with me. I would later find out that Univision, or el canal 34 as many Los Angeles families know it, had done news stories on them in the past (and used them to cater their events). Also of note was a story in El Show de Cristina, aired on the channel. Now-famous singers like Graciela Beltran and Nidia Rojas both sang at Pescador restaurants early in their careers. The incomparable Jenny Rivera was at the grand opening of the South Gate Pescador, number two in the sequence; her father was friends with Don Manuel and his brothers. To be sure, the Ortiz family are local celebrities in our southeast book.
But it didn't happen overnight. Don Manuel told me they had "muchas decepciones" when they first opened -- a long list of disappointments they weathered through recessions into redevelopment and growth.
At home -- where the lessons were first learned
At the simple kitchen table where we talked, Don Manuel reminisced about his mother's enterprising skills. "Mi mamá era luchona," he said. He and his ten brothers got their entrepreneurial knowledge from her. From their father, Don Carlos, he said they learned "el ser honrado y trabjador" -- to be honest and hard-working. Their family, when he was a child, owned a farm in Jalisco where they grew and raised their own food, with plenty to sell along the busy road near the home. As a child, Don Manuel and his brothers sold alfalfa drinks, home-made candies, and dozens of other staples.
Elegant portraits of the late Doña Isidra and her husband el Señor Carlos gaze lovingly onto the den in the Downey home of Don Manuel. He tells me that he still senses his mother's presence in the home. How could he not? She passed away in 2013 and her spirit is felt every day at the chain of over 20 Pescador Family Restaurants.
By 1983, Don Manuel had saved about eight thousand dollars from his many jobs in the restaurant business over the years, starting at this grandfather's taquerías in Mexico City as a boy, then as a chef in Santa Paula, a human resources and inventory manager, as an accountant, and lastly, as a chef at the Elizabeth Seafood Restaurant in Long Beach.
With all the experience he needed under his belt, he asked his wife if she preferred a house or a restaurant: "¿Quieres casa o ponemos restaurante?" His wife replied immediately that they should open a restaurant. If that went well, she said, they could have a house too.
"Se necesita el apoyo de la esposa," Don Manuel told me at his home in Downey, affirming the support needed from a spouse in life. He trusted his wife's instinct that with hard work, they could have both. At the time, he and his wife lived in Huntington Park, a few miles down on Florence Avenue.
"En esos tiempos," he said Bell Gardens had too many cantinas.
Even though I was seven years old at the time, I remember three of the six of the bars Don Ortiz listed: Las Palmas, El Torero, and another bar bikers frequented. My family and I walked past these bars on our way to the supermarkets on Florence. From the bright light of the sidewalk, the bars were comparatively dark, rancheras (and a sour smell of beer) poured out of them in the late afternoons.
One Sunday, Don Manuel remembered the restaurant only made $40. The bar across the street warned them that dozens of restaurants had come and gone in the exact location. The bar was called Cristina's, and their owner sentenced El Pescador to six months until they too would close their doors. But five months later the businesses and a handful of crowded apartments were demolished to make way for a corner mini mall with a huge supermarket and pharmacy chain, and many smaller businesses moved in. The bar and its owner who'd predicted failure for the Ortiz family was gone for good.
Don Manuel thought the location ideal. Down the street on Eastern are industrial offices where the business people could come during the week on lunch breaks. On the weekends, he says families frequent the restaurant to come and relax in an environment that accommodates everyone. It is that model that sustains every Pescador restaurant.
Things really started to look up when the rest of his ten brothers began to immigrate. With the success of the first place, the first brother, Ezekiel or Chel, came to work for Don Manuel for almost nothing. With 15-hour days and savings from their work, soon they grew their business into one that would benefit each individual brother and his family.
At the end of our conversation, he told me his family is active, united, and healthy, like strong arroyos. "Agua viva es la que corre," he said. "Y con el golpeo del arroyo se purifica." His family is that water, constantly moving, working hard and cleansing itself as it goes, nourishing the nature on its path.
But before I left, he outlined a few secrets to a solid family business:
Be generous. Emphasizing generosity over envy and a competitive attitude in his family he said that in their family "Nos somos envidiosos." His extended family has played soccer twice a week in South Gate for three decades at a local middle school. To show their gratitude, their restaurants treat the staff to two feasts each year.
Stay united. If disagreements emerge, discuss them, said Don Manuel. The next generation of Ortiz children are already part of the business and they love it; they love what the business represents for them and the families they serve: a safe place to work and enjoy.
Do your research. Don Manuel worked in the restaurant and business management sectors for thirty years before embarking on the first Pescador.
Stay current. "Hay que abarcarse en la tecnología," he said about keeping up with the latest technology. Each restaurant has updated accounting and other systems that help run the 20 businesses his family owns. To boot, he added a departure from older ways of thinking about gender. "Se ha dejado mucho el machismo en la familia," he said. The men in the family noticed that fighting to get their way as the only way was creating a lot of discord and difficulty.
And most of all, a solid business must share whatever joy and peace they generate: "...paz y felicidad se tienen que compartir."
Don Manuel wished me good luck with my writing program as I left his house. I showed him a photo of my mother and brothers on my cell phone. He put on his glasses and recognized Mom immediately. She had come to visit with Doña Isidra before she passed and sat at the same table where we had talked that day.
"Es muy alegre," he said of my mother's cheer and sweet way with others. "Cuidala mucho."
"She is a very happy person," I said. He noticed that I help take care of Mom as he did his mother in her later years. "She always shares her happiness."
He nodded in agreement. "Ahí esta lo bonito." Therein lies the beauty.
Visit El Pescador Family Restaurants all over the south land for any meal, but their brunches feature mariachis and trios at some locations, like in the city of Carson, where Mariachi de Nati Cano plays on Saturdays and Sundays.