Owners of Mexican restaurant invest in community
Opting to stay on West Side, El Granjero survives Great Recession, thrives with catering department.
Checking online reviews led the ownership at El Granjero Mexican Grill to realize the restaurant had an issue.
The food was good, the service was good, but customers didn’t have the best things to say about the ambiance of the restaurant, situated in a more than 30-year-old building at 950 Bridge St. NW.
In early 2015, Mercedes Lopez-Duran, who has owned the restaurant since 2007, decided it was time for an update. At the time, Lopez-Duran and her daughter, Paola Mendivil, were told it might be smart to look to move rather than update the building they were leasing month-to-month.
Feeling as though there were more negatives than positives to moving from a location they’d occupied for nearly 10 years, they negotiated a five-year lease. Locations on Plainfield Avenue and 28th Street were considered, but the risk of uprooting was too great.
“It was true that it was a rundown building and looked old, but we knew if we invested in it, we could make it nice again,” Mendivil said. “We wanted to stay here and invest in the neighborhood. With all the renovations and new places, this is the time to be on Bridge Street. We knew by the time we’d move out, a business owner would come and make this their own and be successful.”
The process to pull together the renovation took some time, but El Granjero connected with CopperRock Construction in early 2016 and, eventually, launched the project, closing down for 15 days at the end of November and early December 2016.
Throughout the process, Mendivil said the CopperRock team was helpful in ensuring the project went as planned and kept a tight budget while assisting the restaurant in picking more quality products rather than settling for a cheaper fix.
Initially, Mendivil, who was membership coordinator at the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for six years and worked closely with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, expected to hire a large construction firm, such as Rockford Construction or Erhardt Construction, but the startup CopperRock was the right fit, she said.
“They’re here on the West Side and are loyal customers, but I had never met them,” Mendivil said. “It was an ideal project for them and perfect for the scale and budget.”
Lopez-Duran and Mendivil wanted to ensure their neighborhood status was cemented and they would be there for the loyal customer base they’ve built since they bought the restaurant nearly a decade ago.
The family came to Grand Rapids from Mexico in 2005, and after a short time, a friend from their neighborhood on the West Side introduced Lopez-Duran to the owner of the restaurant occupying the building at the time, El Ganadero. Lopez-Duran had 15 years of restaurant experience back in Mexico City and was offered a position bartending at the restaurant.
For two years, Lopez-Duran made drinks and, eventually, began serving tables. Then in 2007, the owner said he was going to have to close the restaurant due to economic struggles during the recession.
Giving the employees little more than two weeks notice, few had any hope of finding a job, especially in such troubled economic times. Lopez-Duran talked with her then-husband and bought the restaurant with the stipulations of changing the name and menu, which included discontinuing alcohol sales.
El Granjero managed through the next two years as the recession waned and expanded the menu with items special to the Mexico City area, especially the use of cacti.
“Each Mexican state has its specialties, we eat tacos all over the country, but we all also have unique dishes that other parts of Mexico don’t know,” Mendivil said. “My mom is starting to introduce those dishes, and cactus is something we’re very passionate about.”
As the economy recovered and El Granjero emerged in stable condition, Mendivil said it was important the business set goals, one of which was to open a second restaurant. In summer 2010, El Granjero opened a short-lived 44th Street location.
“We had it running for six months,” Mendivil said. “We learned a lot and wanted it to work, but it didn’t. It was good, but not good enough. We own our mistakes and are willing to learn.”
The 44th Street restaurant closed and helped the business refocus on the original location, and in 2011, an opportunity to cater a major event at Grand Rapids Public Schools Southwest Community Campus came up.
Lopez-Duran cooked enough food for 600 to 800 people in the restaurant’s first catering gig.
“I couldn’t sleep for a week,” Lopez-Duran said.
Catering offered a whole new avenue for business growth. Mendivil began work as the restaurant’s catering coordinator, and it became a significant piece of the business.
Last year, El Granjero catered 90 events, and the business had sales nearing $1 million without serving alcohol. The business is run by family, with Lopez-Duran cooking, Mendivil in charge of catering and her husband in the kitchen. Lopez-Duran’s other daughter, still in Mexico, designed the new logo and menu.
El Granjero is a family business, but a company rooted in community, Mendivil said. A former employee recently came back looking for advice, as she and her husband considered taking over La Huasteca Mexican Restaurant, 1811 Plainfield Ave. NE.
“At the end of the day, we want the story to inspire others,” Mendivil said. “We want to help. We want them to succeed in business. Yes, we might be competitors, but we’re in the same community and we want to make sure everybody does well.”