by Martha I. Fernandez
photography by Amy M. Boyle
It is a combination of Mexican taco stand meets ’50s diner. The mint green booths complement the mauve and mint checkered floor and contrast the beer can modeled piñatas. Strings of garlic tied with satin ribbons hang beside a Biblical pastel colored picture above the blaring jukebox.
Yes, the decor of El Merendero No. 2 in Pomona is an odd combination. But, for the Lopez brothers, Willie and Pedro, this is the winning combination that has brought them success in the restaurant business and, most importantly, in the United States.
Willie Lopez left his home town of Tepanco de Lopez in Puebla, Mexico, at the age of 16. He crossed the ominous border in 1951 to pick fruit in Fullerton, Calif.
“My family was very poor. I come from a family of 11 siblings, and I am the fourth oldest,” he says.
Throughout the 15 years that followed, Willie would travel to Arizona, California, Tennessee and Texas, picking the cotton, grape, lemon, orange and tomato crops along the way.
In 1959, Lopez returned to his hometown to marry Petra Rojas, his wife of 37 years. The couple returned to the States, where Lopez continued to work in the fruit industry.
Petra’s family owned a restaurant in Puebla, and Willie’s father owned a meat market and small grocery store. Together, the couple combined the knowledge they had gained from working in their family’s businesses. In 1974, they established their first restaurant “El Two Pennies” on Broadway in Los Angeles.
After six months, the couple sold the restaurant and purchased a location in La Verne from a friend of Willie, and christened the establishment El Merendero No. 1.
According to Willie, every Mexican town has a merendero. He describes the term as a place where everything and everyone comes together no matter what walk of life they are from.
“El merendero in Mexico is a place one can find inside any town. The cacique [owner] of the town puts something like a shopping center in the center that has a small grocery store, a drug store, a bar and a restaurant where the rich, professional and farm workers all come to eat,” he explains. “The whole world, from the politician to the most humble person, comes together here.
“Although my business was so small and humble, it didn’t matter because people of all classes would come, and they still keep coming,” Willie shares. “They never rejected [the restaurant], even though it is so humble.”
Proud of his business endeavors, Willie immediately recalls the date he opened the doors of his restaurant in La Verne. The date is a memorable one for the family. It is the day that the first of many El Merendero restaurants would be created. But the success that the family has today was not in sight in the beginning.
“At first, we didn’t think we were going to be successful because it took six months to start the business,” he confesses. “We opened April 5, 1975, but not until the fair in Pomona came in September until the fourth or fifth of October, did the people see the place and start to come. “When the fair wasn’t here, we made no business. We sold very little, almost nothing.”
Today, however, El Merendero no longer has this problem. The restaurant has its valued regular customers and a famous reputation for authentic Mexican food. The food, Willie says, is the main reason for the family’s success. “All our recipes are original from us, from our customs,” says Petra.
He opened and sold various locations of his restaurant throughout the Pomona Valley and had establishments in Fontana and Huntington Park. However, with time, he shut down the other locations and kept the restaurants at 1910 Fairplex Dr. and 301 Garey Ave. open for business. Willie also established the El Merendero Bakery adjacent to El Merendero No. 2 in Pomona in 1982.
Here, he has his main office adorned with the Pomona Valley Small Business Recognition Award for “Outstanding Small Business of the Year in 1994.”
“We have seven recognitions,” Willie boasts. “It means a lot to us, these certificates they give us. We feel a lot of pride that they gave us recognition.”
His businesses in Pomona are the ones that Willie spends most of his time at now. When not checking on them, Willie is home in La Verne with his three children or enjoying his ranch in Rubidoux, Calif. “There, I feel very happy. I have my animals, and that life makes me content,” says Willie.
For younger brother Pedro, most of his time is spent running his own two restaurants in Pomona, where he works 10 to 16 hours daily. Asked whether his role at his restaurants was solely as a supervisor, Pedro answers, “I work like any peon. I come, and I will do everything, inclusive of cleaning the bathrooms or sweeping the floors or washing the plates. I will do everything.”
Taking the risks of starting a new business seems to run in the genes of the Lopez family. It is a whole family affair when the Lopez family opens a new restaurant. According to Pedro, the majority of employees for both businesses are siblings, nieces and nephews.
He started out as one of those relatives who helped Willie with his first business. In 1983, Pedro followed his older brother’s footsteps and opened Los Jarritos I at 246 Towne Ave. Three years later, he inaugurated Los Jarritos II at 3191 Garey Ave.
Like his brother, Pedro also credits the food for his success. “We always ate well in our home, and what we ate we wanted our customers to eat. It is of great interest to us that things be well done, well done always,” he says.
Pedro says that the most popular entrees at his restaurants are enchiladas and chile rellenos. Besides the food he also believes the atmosphere of the restaurant is essential to his success.
“It is a comfortable environment where the people come and feel comfortable. They ask for what they need, and they stay as long as they want; there is no hurry. If they want more to eat, we’ll give them more. And then, they can go home content.”
Pedro hopes to open another restaurant in the near future. He is looking at the cities of Claremont, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Victorville for a future establishment.
Pedro left Mexico as a 28 year old in 1969. He joined his older brother Willie, working in watermelon warehouses in Los Angeles. As time passed, Pedro also worked in a clothing store and a candy factory. In 1975, he moved to the Pomona Valley with his brother to work at El Merendero No. 1.
Despite the long work days, the majority of Pedro’s toil was at night. It was during the late hours that Pedro says he accomplished the task of which he is most proud. He attended English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. After a year of ESL classes, Pedro enrolled in preparatory courses for the General Equivalence Diploma (GED) exam.
“The language was very important to me, and I liked English. It was my great illusion to learn English.” Pedro graduated second in his class at Roosevelt High with a B+ grade point average.
“Jobs are always there-if you do them well or if you do them badly,” he says. “But an education is the wealth. It is the weapon with which one can defend oneself throughout life.”
However, learning English was not the only dream Pedro had. “My dream that I had when I was in México to buy a new truck and have a business has become a reality,” he says. “My other dream was to marry a good woman, and that has also become a reality.”
Marrying a good woman is the dream that took the longest to be realized. In 1988, Pedro married his wife, Socorro, whom he lives with in Pomona with their three children.
“I am happy, but I know that I have many more challenges,” he says. “The world needs a lot of work. There is a lot to fix. You cannot rest.”
For the Lopez family, their dreams are rooted in México and realized in the United States. Some might say that is what the American dream is all about.
Interviews were done in Spanish and translated by the writer for article composition.