2820 E. Indian School Road • manuelsaz.com
A neighborhood native, John Salazar has operated Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant on Indian School Road since the 70s. Thanks to recipes passed down from his mother and father, who opened the original location in 1964, Salazar hopes to continue the service of traditional Mexican eats to his family, friends, and anyone who comes through those big yellow doors.
Give us a brief history of Manuel’s.
We opened in June 1964. Next year is our 60th anniversary! It was started by my mom and dad, Manuel and Alice Salazar. It’s a family business. They’ve since departed the Earth, so now me, my brother David and my sisters Cindy and Patty run the eight restaurants around the Valley. We’ve survived 60 years, which is quite remarkable – most businesses don’t last after the first generation; people sell, retire, or something happens. This is all we know as a family, is how to run restaurants.
Where was the first location?
The first location opened at 32nd St. and Indian School – I believe there’s a Massage Envy there now. We were renting that building. My dad wanted to own real estate and imparted that to his kids, so now we own our land and buildings. We don’t want to have to depend on anyone, you know?
Restaurants are expensive to build and maintain. We didn’t like the idea of someone coming in and saying, “okay, we’re going to change this.” We don’t like that – we believe in longevity. Many of our employees have been with us for 20 or 30 years – we even had a gentleman with us for 40 years. They come, and they stay. And we love that!
Was the family born and raised here?
Yes – I graduated from Camelback High School. This is my neighborhood, this is where I grew up. It’s so different from what it used to be, though. It’s so dense here now. More people, bigger buildings. There used to be small buildings, but a lot of them. Now, buildings go up; everywhere you look, there are buildings with three, four, and five stories. Condos, apartments. There are more people, but more people comes with good things, too. We have to take the good with the bad.
What was included on the initial menu?
We have a menu from 1964 framed on our wall! Tacos were 35 cents back then. It was basic Mexican food. Tacos, burros, enchiladas. They’re all my mother’s recipes.
The most popular items on our menu today are the fajitas, but people like good, old-fashioned Mexican food: tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chimis. That’s what we do, and I don’t plan on changing it!
Where did your mother learn the recipes?
She learned a lot from her brother, who was a cook on one of the ships in the Navy. He brought those recipes back, and eventually, he became a cook for Macayo’s – which is one of our competitors!
What inspired them to open the restaurant?
My dad’s side of the family is very entrepreneurial, and a lot of his siblings ended up opening businesses in food service. My aunt was the founder of Garcia’s Mexican Restaurants – not the one down the road. That’s a different version. They still have the one location on 35th Ave. Another aunt owned Popo’s Mexican Restaurants, and yet another aunt owns La Canasta Tortillas, but they’re known as My Nana’s Tortillas. So, as I said, they’re very entrepreneurial. It just evolved.
When did you start in the industry?
I was 11 when the restaurant opened. When I turned 13, I started working in the restaurant, bussing tables, cooking chips, and making salsa. In high school, I studied accounting, so I helped with bookkeeping. But I also help with construction, design, and remodeling.
I have a staff member who’s also a CAD drawer who helps me with all building designs. This restaurant went through an extensive remodel around six years ago, and he helped me with all of it.
Did you always know you would work in the restaurant?
Honestly, I didn’t want to be in the industry – I thought, ‘this is for the birds’ [laughs]. I was a musician and I decided, well, I could either play music or eat. Musicians don’t make much money in the beginning – it’s not solid work. So I came back to the restaurant, started building more. I’m good at it. You do what you know.
I was a partner in the restaurant on Cave Creek Road in 1973, right out of college. I built this restaurant [on Indian School and 28th] in 1979. I’m the owner, manager, jack of all trades. I do what needs to get done.
What are some of your responsibilities?
Mostly to keep things going. Maintenance – restaurants take a lot of abuse with all the people coming and going, so there’s always painting, electrical, and remodeling because you should keep the concept fresh. We’re always looking to improve and streamline our service. We focus on how many steps it takes to get a job done – the fewer steps, the more productivity.
And, of course, dealing with vendors and trying to get the right supplies in a timely manner. The other issue is finding labor – that’s across the board with any business. The newer people don’t know how or have a different philosophy about what work is. They’re a different breed. We’re not a 9-5, Monday through Friday, but the nights and weekends are where the money is. So we just have to teach them, you know?
How does it feel to operate a legacy like Manuel’s?
It can be burdensome. The reason I say that is because customers expect certain things, and when you have problems with labor and products, you have to be resourceful. The more resourceful you are, the better the outcome. There are a lot of people that give up and say, ‘we’re not going to do this.’ Being part of a legacy is a pride thing, too, because you want to continue to offer people what they’re used to getting. If you can’t, it’s a letdown. We want to keep the standards high. It’s difficult, but not impossible!
What is the most challenging part of working in this industry?
The baby boomers are retiring. All the people I’ve had working for me for all these years are leaving or passing away. People that were part of this organization from the beginning, so that’s been difficult. It’s a labor thing, a commitment thing, but that’s an issue in any business.
What is your favorite part?
The people. The customers and my employees. They are part of my family – they depend on me as much as I depend on them. To see them every day, and interact with them, is a huge plus as opposed to being alone. Lots of people work from home and don’t see many others; I don’t have to worry about that [laughs]. I want customers to know we’re here for them as long as they’re here and as long as they need us.
Who is your biggest inspiration, and why?
That’s a difficult question because I’m inspired by a lot of different people in a lot of different areas. One of the things that I do – and I’m pretty good at – is finding people that specialize in things I can’t do. I have a programmer that works for me, a CAD designer…to work with people that can help me learn and imagine and put it together. Is there one person? No. There are a lot of people that inspire me.
What advice has stayed with you?
On my desk, I have a thing that’s called ‘10 Rules for Losing.’ Like – if you stay with the status quo, you’re losing. You have to be open-minded to figure out how to solve problems. ‘If you’re accepting a downfall in business as part of the normal business cycle, you’re wrong.’ You should always try to improve your business. Don’t accept the status quo. Keep your standards high. I’m always looking at those rules – you have to figure out how not to follow them.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I play music! I have a band, and we perform at the restaurant in Scottsdale on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. That’s my relaxation. We play traditional Mexican music, and on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s more rock, country, and Sinatra-type stuff. My father used to tell me, ‘you’re never going to make any money playing music,’ and I’d say, ‘yeah, but if I play music in my own restaurant, I’ll probably do okay.’[laughs] I play keyboards and bass guitar.
What is your favorite food?
I like all the different kinds. One of my favorites is Chinese. I’ve met a lot of people through the Restaurant Association – I was a board member for 25 years – so we’d get together and go to different places. It’s exciting!
What’s next for John Salazar?
A lot of people would say retirement, but we’re looking for other locations. The big challenge I have is when I do retire, who’s going to take over? My son didn’t care for the restaurant business, and I don’t want to sell to investors.
I’m in this business for the satisfaction of my customers and the longevity of my employees. Profitability always comes when you achieve those two goals. Take care of the customers, and those who work for you – everything else will fall into place.