Carlos Rivero first opened El Chile on Manor Road in 2003 with fellow Jeffrey's alums Kristine Kittrell and Jeff Martinez. The restaurant pioneered practices that have now become standard operating procedure in Austin, like squeezing fresh lime for margaritas and making mole in house. Since then, Rivero's El Chile Group has opened - and closed - restaurants all over central Austin. El Chile is celebrating its tenth anniversary by reopening on Manor Road, where it will be joined by a new "cantina" across the street. Eater spoke with Rivero about growing from a single restaurant to a dynamic group, his advice to aspiring restauranteurs, and what's next.
How did El Chile get its start?
Carlos Rivero: I used to work for the Jeffrey's Group. All of our roots, myself and two sous chefs used to work at Jeffreys. I was front of house management. I ran the branch in D.C.
When Bush went into office we did his inaugural dinner at the Watergate Hotel. Jeffrey's was his favorite restaurant. Laura Bush and the owner of Jeffrey's at the time grew up together. It's funny because Ron couldn't be any more of a Democrat.
It was very much a Clarksville liberal institution.
Carlos Rivero: It's a funny mix. When we did their inaugural dinner, The Watergate Hotel contracted us to open a restaurant there. When September 11th happened, I decided to come home. Fine dining was kind of dead for a while after the attack. There was a bit of small recession after, and fine dining, in particular, got hit pretty hard.
I was flipping houses in this neighborhood, and I realized how lacking it was in amenities. I had a lifelong dream to open a Mexican restaurant. I saw the guys putting a little for rent sign up here, a wonderful old couple, the Josephs, and talked them into leasing me a space even though I was pretty young and they thought I was crazy.
We opened to great acclaim and wonderful business, back when the East Side was a lot quieter than it is now. People were like, "What are these Jeffrey's folks doing opening a restaurant on the East Side? And why would they open a Mexican restaurant of all things?" We were treating something that a lot of people take for granted and bringing a high quality approach. That landed us national press.
Let's lay out a timeline of the El Chile Group. In 2003 you opened El Chile. What came next?
Carlos Rivero: Our second restaurant was El Chilito down the street. Those landlords came over and said "Wow! We love what you did with this place. Our place needs some help." That was 2005.
In 2006 we opened El Gringo where the Salty Sow is now. It was the worst concept of three in that location. El Gringo was followed by Stortini which was Kristine Kittrell's concept. It was an Italian restaurant. We reconcepted that as a reaction to the recession in 2008, but a lot of people thought that Italian was fancier than El Gringo was. We made it into the Red House Pizzeria in 2009 and that did great. But then people much wealthier than me bought the property.
What was El Gringo's concept?
Carlos Rivero: We couldn't open a Mexican restaurant on the same street where we already had two. It was along the lines of what Jeffrey's used to be like back then, super-elevated Southwestern cuisine. The rules were that there were no tortillas, rice or beans on the menu.
In 2008 we opened an El Chile in the Far West neighborhood, which closed in 2011 because we had a nasty landlord. And we opened El Chilito on Congress in late 2008, which the following year, in 2009, we converted to an El Chile. And we took that business and moved it down to where El Alma is. We wanted to give Alma her own concept. Then we closed the Manor Road El Chile and moved to South First. Now we're reopening the Manor Road El Chile again.
How did that decision come about? At one point you were thinking of doing a Peruvian place here.
Carlos Rivero: I love Peruvian food. It's some of my favorite up and coming cuisine in America. But in the end, the neighborhood was very vocal about wanting El Chile back. They let everybody know at my other restaurants here on the row that they were unhappy. They sent emails. On South First I didn't see my regulars. I would see them on the weekend or once in awhile, but not three times a week like they come here. This place has a really great clientele, a great history of success in this location. And it gave us a chance to renovate. This place had taken a beating after ten years.
Why did you guys decide to move down to South First?
Carlos Rivero: I'm from San Antonio, and that building reminds me of the great old buildings down there. I'm a romantic when it comes to locations. The restaurant before had been there for over 35 years. It's larger, more visible, and in one of the trendiest areas of town. Who doesn't want to grow up and go to the big show?
Want about this Cantina you're going to do across the street, at the old Flat Top location? You were saying you couldn't do three Mexican restaurants on the same strip.
Carlos Rivero: It's going to be a cantina for El Chile. It's basically going to be a bar with a cantina menu attached. I would expect that it be king of a more casual, probably younger crowd, whereas El Chile a little more elevated.
Manor Road is developing a serious bar scene.
Carlos Rivero: East Side. Party central.
How has Manor Road changed over the last ten years?
Carlos Rivero: Astronomically. It's night and day. When we got here I think there was Hoover's, East Side Cafe, and Mi Madres. John Mueller, when he felt like opening, because he was crazy. Now, there are easily twice as many restaurants.
Was Vivo there where you opened?
Carlos Rivero: Vivo opened the same week we did. We didn't know they were coming. There used to be this giant fence around that whole property. Had I known they were coming I probably wouldn't have opened this place. They started in February, and we started in August. There was a lot of time to notice them, but it was all fenced off. But we both found great success.
How different is El Chile today from what you thought it would be ten years ago?
Carlos Rivero: I don't think we've strayed too far off course. The menu has not changed a lot. We have the same chef that we started out with. The fact that we've been so consistent is a big part of our success.
What have been your biggest sellers?
Carlos Rivero: Well, margaritas! We were one of the first to take a fresh approach to margaritas. Ten years ago people didn't squeeze their own lime juice, use agave nectar or even good tequila in their house margarita. Making our own mole was the first thing that really got written about.
The michelada's been in Playboy Magazine. We were in the Washington Post one Super Bowl weekend as the perfect nachos.
I was really scared to put a michelada on ten years ago because no one knew what it was. And now it's humongous. En frijoladas was another example something that nobody had ever heard of that much before and, at first, didn't really sell. But we didn't take it off and now it's a huge seller.
What was the biggest surprise in the last ten years?
Carlos Rivero: Having a line out the door. We'd been open for four months and back then the press was the go to- reading the paper. So Kitty Crider, who was back then the food editor at The Statesman wrote this article on the front of their Food and Life section, about how we came from Jeffrey's and our mole is made from scratch. At lunch that day we got hammered. It was wonderful, but, at the same time, absolutely scary as hell because doubling your business literally in one day. I've never been so distressed in my life.
That was the biggest surprise, that one article. The editorial press back then used to really move business.
What was the weirdest moment?
Carlos Rivero: Closing restaurants is never fun. I think that the first panic attack I ever had was when I closed the Red House. Hopefully it will be the last one.
Why that one?
Carlos Rivero: It was very successful. And it had been a long road – it took three concepts to make it a success. To have it taken away because I couldn't afford the property – to two guys who just sold their concept for 54 million dollars. They had sold Eddie V's recently and they're spending their money. I was trying to buy it, but they came in about $300,000 ahead. Just blew me out of the water. How do you touch that? And how is that not heartbreaking?
It's the restaurant business. I'm kind of a one man show. I don't have a big group of investors. I don't operate the way that some other groups do.
In the long run, though, I don't regret it. I think had I continued with that concept I wouldn't have been able to do the South First concept which looks like it's going to be a giant home run.
What's your advice for someone who's opening their first restaurant and wants to grow?
Carlos Rivero: Don't do it! Have a life. Travel. Party. It's beyond a lifestyle. I mean it's my life. Night and day. Day and night. That's what you have to sign up for when you're going into this business.
It matches my personality. I'm 24/7. I'm very high energy. I require a lot of stimulation. It's perfect that way.
How did you get your start in the service industry?
Carlos Rivero: My family had a Mexican food wholesale business in San Antonio. We sold tortillas and tortilla chips in particular, which went huge in the '80s from coast to coast. We had a factory that ran twenty-four hours a day. We ate out a lot more than people did back then. We either lived in restaurants or we were getting together on the weekends and having big dinner parties and so our lives revolved around eating. So when I came to Austin to go to college I immediately went out and got a restaurant job, which my mom absolutely hated. She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that.
I had a short stint at Dell when I graduated from college because I feel like it was the right thing to do. But I went right back to Jeffrey's and I don't think I'm ever going back to the real world.
Probably the most grown up thing I've ever done is flip real estate. I'm glad I started in college with that because it helped me build my restaurant business. I didn't do it with waiter's tips. I started buying houses when I was in college in San Antonio and continued in the Austin market when I graduated college. The year before I opened my first restaurant I flipped 16 houses.
Do you see your real estate background as being essential to your success in the restaurant business?
Carlos Rivero: Critical. Location is so important. Plus, negotiating leases can be very tricky. Your landlord is really like a partner. It's something I always try to tell people before starting their own place. It turns out that the real estate business actually pays better than the restaurant business, but my passions lies here.
Are you still interested in expanding more around town?
Carlos Rivero: We will continue to expand, but under the realm of Mexican. The Mexican restaurants seem to do the best. We have the most credibility.
El Chilito is still coming to South Austin?
Carlos Rivero: Pending approval, I suppose. No, they've been very supportive. I've visited with them at their neighborhood meetings lately. It's just a matter of going through the process with the city. But we are asking for a zoning change. It was built to be a restaurant, but I guess, over the years, the zone has changed. It's the usual city fun.
Any other plans?
Carlos Rivero: I'm considering going to chef school myself. I pushed my sister to go to the CIA in San Antonio. She's in South America right now, studying. Anything to enhance what we do. Maybe a little sabbatical in New York wouldn't kill me. Between the experience of going to chef school there and, obviously, a lot of the restaurants there.
If you did it all over again is there anything you'd change?
Carlos Rivero: I would take out some of those loses I had along the way. The recession. Though you learn a lot more from your failures than you do your successes.
Based on what I read, after ten years of being a restaurant owner, I should just be hitting the tipping point of the good part. So I figure if I haven't even hit the good part, I can't even imagine what the next ten years will bring.
· All El Chile Group Coverage [EATX]
· All Ten Years In Coverage [EATX]