If you live in Porterville CA, chances are that you’ve been to El Tapatio on Multiple ocassions. Walk in during dinner hours and you are sure to see at least a few familiar faces. As it turns out, that familiarity between employees and patrons is one of the biggest reasons for the restaurant’s success.
“Everybody knows all of my family; they know us. When they come in, there is always a member of the family here and we try to be friendly and have things ready for them.” This is the mindset of El Tapatio founder and owner Alicia Gutierrez. “Being a family tradition here…we want to keep that. They should feel like they’re at home.”
However, this strong sense of community did not develop overnight. Gutierrez recalls the founding of El Tapatio 32 years ago.
Actually, we wanted to open a little grocery store, but then coming home from working in the fields, we saw a “For Rent” sign on Teapot Dome and it was a little restaurant, so we thought we might as well make it a restaurant. So that got us into the restaurant business. My mother-in-law was a very good cook, so she said “I’ll help you out.” So that was the first El Tapatio on Teapot Dome in 1979.
Thanks to all the people that liked our food and kept on going and going and going until now… we have to thank everybody that is coming and likes our food. They kept us in business, so we’re still here. “Faithful customers.” The community of Porterville, the “faithful customers” that Alicia mentions, are the reason for the current size and scope of the restaurant.
“It was a restaurant for a long time on Teapot Dome and people knew it and they would stop. So we actually started in a good location. It was Teapot Dome Café for years and years, and everybody knew Teapot Dome; all of the ranchers, everybody that passed by… I think we were really lucky to get that little corner over there and people just kept going in. So it was a little thing that started and kept going nonstop.”
Any career change can bring with it difficult adjustments. For Alicia Gutierrez and her family, it was the significant time investment that the new business required. “It was the hours. Lots of hours. We did it ourselves, with our kids that were small and going to school. Long hours. It was sometimes very difficult. Sometimes they would fall asleep at the restaurant and we would forget their homework over there and go home and then the next morning we would take the homework to the school. Little things like that,” she fondly remembered.
But there were good changes for the Gutierrez family as well.
“I guess from working in the fields and then having to be where it was nice and cool… it kind of made it nice,” she said with a chuckle.
Alice Gutierrez’s focus on the feeling of familiarity in her restaurant extends to her employment practices as well. “I have workers that started with me and they’re still here. So sometimes when somebody leaves and somebody else comes in that day and we need him or her, we’ll just tell them, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you a job.’ We’re always full with workers, but if we have to hire someone new we’ll teach them to do this, this, and that… We’ve been lucky because we get good workers. Most of our workers stay for years and years and years. So we only hire new people when somebody leaves.”
Among the plethora of Mexican restaurants in Porterville, Alicia Gutierrez believes that something besides the sense of community helps to set El Tapatio apart from the rest.
“We make everything ourselves. We cook our chicken every day, our beans, our meat… we do our salsas every day, and our chips,” she said. “You know we don’t buy them; we freshly make them every day. It’s like home cooking every day. Doing everything freshly is good every morning, and being on top of everything. Being here every day, making sure that everything is made right. And like I said, we have good cooks and they follow our recipes and stay on top of it.”
Restaurants as successful as El Tapatio often times expand their business into other cities. However, Alicia is leaving that up to future generations to decide.
“We’re based here, unless one of the grandkids… I’ve got two that want to be cooks,” she said. “So maybe if one of them decides to, we’ll help them out, but right now we’re just here. It’s just this one.”
The Gutierrez family is grateful for the success they have had in Porterville and would like to offer their sincere thanks.
“We thank the loyal customers; all of them. They’re always being faithful. They’ve always been with us and never left us,” Alicia said. “I’m very thankful for all of them; kids, families… I mean, we’ve known families where the wife was pregnant and now the kids are married and they come in and bring their own kids, so it’s good to see them grow, and we thank all of them. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We consider our faithful customers family, and we’re still here for them.”
By ANTHONY J. FREDETTE
FOR THE PORTERVILLE RECORDER
Used with permission