I recently met with Angelica Arias, General Manager of El Toro Mexican Restaurant to talk about her family’s owned and operated chain since 1979. Still run by her father with Angelica and her siblings as partners, El Toro has successfully served five key locations in Tacoma, Washington for more than 35 years. Read Angelica’s interview to learn more about their business, plans for future locations, and advice for starting your own restaurant chain.
Angelica Arias at El Toro in Puyallup
A Brief History
Angelica and I take a seat in one of the back dining rooms. The entire restaurant is furnished with colorful artwork and unique furniture. She informs me that everything from the chairs and lighting fixtures to the decorative wall accents were shipped over on a cargo ship from Mexico. You can tell that each piece is intentional, giving it a truly traditional, welcoming feel.
But welcoming wasn’t always a part of El Toro’s history.
“My dad, Ruben, started El Toro in 1979 – the El Toro over in Lakewood. He tells the story of coming to this country with just a couple of dollars in his pocket and working at a relative’s restaurant in California as a dishwasher,” says Angelica. “He saved his money and finally made the move here where he bought the restaurant [that would become El Toro] from one of his good friends. From there, it quickly expanded.”
In El Toro’s early days, however, the business faced some challenges having to do with racism as it was the first Mexican restaurant to open in the area. Angelica explains that some customers were not always welcoming of her father’s authentic dishes. So, in order to establish themselves, they incorporated a few Tex-Mex options into the menu. Today, El Toro’s customer base is welcoming and supportive – evident in the fact that the chain has had great success in expanding and becoming a favorite spot for many in the area. “We are still doing good,” says Angelica. ” And we owe it all to our customers.”
Read more of the interview below.
Tacos al Pastor on Tuxton plate – Photo courtesy of El Toro Facebook page
What other types of challenges
I think every location has minuscule ones. I would say as a chain, the hardest part has been standardization. Every chef has their own way of cooking and as a brand, you want to make sure you stay consistent at all of your chains. Especially when you’re working with different volumes. For example, this restaurant [Puyallup] does maybe three times the volume as the Parkland Toro. So, adjusting the ingredients based on that has been the biggest struggle for us.
Do you have plans to open more locations in the future?
I’m glad you asked that question. We’re in a bit of a transition phase. My dad is heading towards the retirement road and may not want to open any more restaurants – that’s something he mentioned to us in the last family meeting. My siblings and I, however, have other ambitions. We’re just starting so we would love to keep it growing sustainably. We would like to open another El Toro and have a location in University Place, and have been thinking a lot. Do we buy a different building? Are we going to open a new one? Are we going to renew our lease there? What’s going to happen? Outside of that, I can’t see within the next five years any other project being built other than that one. Down the road, though, I know my brother and I could potentially – and my sister if she is interested – get together and do something. We’ll see what happens.
Do you think it would be under the same umbrella as El Toro?
Yes, I think it would be under the same umbrella. Maybe not El Toro of this style but perhaps a different variation of our menu or name.
What continues to motivate or inspire you in the foodservice industry?
Personally, I know my siblings as well as my parents, love to dine out. That’s something we’ve always enjoyed as a family. We enjoy trying different things and meeting people in the service industry. I think the continuous change with food and ingredients and different dishes is exciting. That, and drinks! It’s so fun to make your own margarita and collaborate with the family and say, “try this!” It’s a lot of fun.
Do you use old family recipes on your menu?
We do. The way we still make our authentic Chiles Rellenos is the way my mom and grandma still make it. We try to conserve the traditional dishes, however, our menu does have a little bit of a Tex-Mex and that was introduced to our menu from the very beginning just to get our foot in the door
What is a new ingredient, cooking style or food trend that you are excited about or have incorporated into the menu?
We have always tried to keep our customers’ health in mind. My dad and brother underwent a lifestyle change – it’s now called the caveman or paleo diet – and he started incorporating certain things into the menu based on that. For example, we got rid of using lard years ago in our beans and switched to vegetable and canola oil. We use sea salt instead of refined salt. Little things like that. Also, offering our customers the option of easy oil by using less oil in the cooking. Cooking al vapor, which means to cook the food just by water so you don’t have to use any oils or butter, is another option. We don’t have a gluten free menu because our kitchen is not gluten free certified, however, we do have a lot of gluten free options. We communicate this to the kitchen and make sure they switch their gloves, etc. Mexican food is very easy for those who are gluten free.
What is your favorite dish on the menu and why?
Oh, that’s a hard one. I have my top three. One of them I’m sad to say is no longer on our menu anymore; the fresh Dungeness crab enchiladas. We pulled it from our menu because it wasn’t being ordered at all five locations very frequently. But I would say my favorites are the Tacos Al Carbon – the steak option because you can choose between steak or chicken – and the steak ones are really good.
Do you have advice for someone who is looking to expand into a chain?
If you already have a business open, it would be to bootstrap and make a list of everything. This allows you to have a cookie cutter system so you know what works and know what you’re going to use it for to apply for future references. So, just trying to get everything as systematic as possible and communicating with your partners. I think that is huge because you want to make sure everybody has the same goal, they know what they’re getting into, and all the lines are clear cut.
Visit El Toro at any of their five locations: