Photo courtesy of El Charro Cafe
Up Close With...Candace Flores Carrillo
Special event director of El Charro Café, Cocina Charro Catering, and Sir Veza's (one of the company’s newest ventures); owner and operator of The Stillwell House and Garden.
Since editor Kathleen Furore first met Candace Flores Carrillo in the late 1990s (she was then simply Candace Flores), a lot has changed for the Mexican restaurant industry, for Candace, and for El Charro Café, the restaurant her great-great Aunt, Monica Flin, founded in Tucson, Ariz. In 1922. Furore recently caught up with Flores Carillo, who now juggles business matters with mom duties: She and husband John welcomed son Alex six months ago.
ERM: El Charro Café is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the country operated continuously by the same family. What are some of the things that have stayed the same since aunt opened the first El Charro?
For me the thing that has never changed for El Charro Café in the 90 years since its beginning is its emphasis on family. Family is the creator, the motivator for all we do and have ever done. When you walk through the doors you feel this sense of history, of spirit and of love for what we do. Time-honored traditions are respected and at times, due to customers’ changing palettes, are challenged and consequently have evolved. Yet we remain true to our roots. My mother, Chef Carlotta Flores, has found a way throughout her career to balance what we did in the past with what is needed in the future—all with her own unique flair.
ERM: The industry obviously has changed tremendously since those early years. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the Mexican food and beverage industry since you began working with the company? How has El Charro adapted its menu to meet the consumers' evolving taste preferences?
Flores Carillo: For us what has changed the most is the customers’ knowledge of Mexican cuisine. Due to the internet, cooking shows and the media in general, the "average" customer is a much greater connoisseur of Mexican food. They have a great knowledge base of ingredients and trends, and they demand that you stay on top of the game with an ever-changing "in" item while staying true to your original flavor profile. Mexican food is now found in every American city, large and small. A version of it is on almost every menu, from mom and pop to fast food to high end restaurants. Its ingredients are used in every genre of cuisine, from fast food burgers to five-star restaurants. So we are constantly challenging the status quo and evolving our time-honored dishes while staying true to their original form.
Our beverage component has changed even more so. The basic menu of Mexican beer and house Margaritas we offered 30 years ago has grown to include more than 50 mid- to high-end tequilas, infused cocktails, organic and low-carb offerings, a more evolved wine list and private label cerveza brews. We offer exclusive tasting events based on the various tequila profiles . The tequilas are paired with dishes my mother creates exclusively for the events.
For Sir Vezas, our newest restaurant addition, we have taken the beverages even further. It is important that, in addition to the great taste of the cocktail, the presentation goes to the next level with exciting presentation, glassware, garnish and elevated recipes. We do a wonderful michelada (our Sir Chelada) with a refreshing blend of house-made spicy tomato and clam juice cocktail with a beer of the customer’s choice tipped upside down and served in the cocktail. I
The customer has demanded many changes, which has kept us on our toes. They want new food combinations and ingredients such as organic produce, local sustained ingredients, and grass fed meats and poultry, so we have changed ways we have done things in our kitchens. We have also met customers’ dietary demands for vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and lacoste-free dishes. We have always been a forerunner in heart-healthy cuisine and have dispelled the myth that Mexican food isn't good for you for years. Now we have gone to the next level to show our homemade fresh approach using a bounty of the best ingredients is the way to a happy heart and full stomach!
ERM: The economy hasn't been great for the last few years, yet El Charro has continued to expand. How are the new ventures faring?
Flores Carillo: The economy has been a true challenge for us. With increasing food costs, labor, and overall inflation we have definitely had our shares of struggle. We have seen our guests being more discriminatory about how they spend their hard earned dollars. They are coming in, but perhaps now they don't order that appetizer or second drink. And instead of visiting us weekly, they come twice a month. We have taken on this challenge by offering them excellent, well-made food and great customer service in a fun, unique environment. We have introduced a lower price summer menu, customer reward programs that let diners earn vouchers to dine with us, gift card promotions and happy hour specials. We introduce new menu items quarterly and entice the customer to return to try these new dishes. We also believe in being involved in our community with various charities. Giving back to those who support is key to our success.
We now have five Tucson locations of El Charro Café. The town is growing—over a million plus residents—and it has spread out. We have found that people want to have a neighborhood El Charro to call their own. Each has a unique decor, but we keep the same feel and sense of history. Most are doing well, but we have our challenges as some areas the restaurants are in have felt the economic hit more than others.
We also are constantly working on getting the best staff —a challenge but so key for the customer experience. The past five years have been a true learning experience for our family. In fact my mom feels it mirrors the beginning of the restaurant and what our founder went through. But we are grateful to keep persevering when so many places have closed their doors. We feel as a family that it is important to take chances and create opportunities for jobs for our community.
Our newest family concept is Sir Vezas. My brother, Ray Flores, and my mother conceptualized this concept of a creative taqueria. It is a nod to the amazing car culture and taco relationship. We serve unique tacos, burgers, classic Mexican dishes with a twist, all in a cool, car-oriented space with a nod to classic muscle car folklore. It has been a true home run for us. We have two locations in Tucson and are expanding to the Phoenix market and beyond. We see this as the future of our family’s growth.
ERM: How has the catering part of your business, Cocina Charro, done during the recession? Were Carlotta's Cocina cooking classes added during that time to boost business?
Flores Carillo: The catering division is probably the area where we have seen more challenges because people are not entertaining as much in their homes. We have expanded to doing larger events for the University of Arizona, catering for the teams and various departments, and have sought out corporate events. We also have purchased our own event facility, The Stillwell House, a historic local mansion in the heart of our downtown, which specializes in weddings and special events. We feature classic El Charro cuisine as well as American, Southwestern and Italian selections from our catering company, Stillwell Catering Co, all under the direction of my mother. This has been a wonderful addition to our family business.
ERM: You've also entered new territory with Chonita Foods. When and why did you start offering products wholesale?
Chonita Foods is being kept busy as our main commissary for our own restaurants. This has been key to our growth. It allows quality control and consistency with our recipes. We are able to control our labor costs and meet strict demands for food safety in our USDA plant.
ERM: The restaurant marketplace has become increasingly competitive, with more and more Mexican and Latin-themed restaurants opening all the time. Do you have any advice for our readers about how they can successfully compete--especially if they don't have the same history and resources El Charro has?
Flores Carillo: My most important suggestion for restaurateurs is to love what you do. You have to love it because it is hard work, and every day is a challenge. But offer a well-made product using fresh, quality ingredients; encourage and motivate your staff to deliver great service; be active in your community; and throw away your ego because you will constantly be challenged by this experience. From those challenges comes knowledge that will help you grow and improve. It really comes down to something as basic as this: treat others as you want to be treated. Your family, your staff and your customers will all benefit from this old adage. My parents, Ray and Carlotta Flores, are my brothers’ Raymon and Marques’ and my greatest teachers. They are fearless leaders who aren't afraid of failure. Although they have had many failures, they still get up every day and love what they do. Their boundless energy for the restaurants, for our history and for our family is my greatest inspiration and I'm blessed to have them as my educator.