On Feb. 28, Mary Perez opened the 1,900-square-foot Enchiladas Olé with zero restaurant experience but a head full of recipes and a drive that has drawn numerous admirers.
The 40-something single mother spent $100,000 redecorating and re-equipping the spot, in the 901 N. Sylvania Ave. location of a failed Mexican restaurant, La Superior. Although the landlord offered her the abandoned equipment, she said it all had to be replaced.
The venture is an outgrowth of Perez’s bottled enchilada sauce venture, also named Enchiladas Olé. She founded that business two years earlier, after a career in nonprofits, local government and the county hospital, doing marketing and supervisory work.
People had praised her sauces for years, urging Perez to bottle it. Then customers implored her to open a restaurant. And she did, offering a clear change from the ubiquity of Tex-Mex tacos, burritos and gorditas.
“People are surprised we serve only enchiladas,” Perez says. “But after they’re served, they come back again and again.”
Seated in the restaurant on a recent weekday was retiree Jerry Grantland, a repeat customer who brought along a friend, who was there for the first time.
“Excellent,” said Grantland. “Just excellent.”
Perez’s enchiladas are not the same old Tex-Mex with red sauce and yellow cheese. For instance, a current offering is smoked brisket in hatch chile sauce. The smoking is done on site, with pecan-wood pellets. The cheese is grated in-house Monterey Jack, and the produce is hand-selected, not delivered by food service companies. Everything is made from scratch except the corn tortillas, which are produced in North Texas.
It hasn’t been all easy rowing. Perez started her sauce business with just $13,000 and it was some nine months before it was profitable. She was able to provide for her two sons, but there were no movie nights or other extras.
With Doug Renfro, president of salsa maker Renfro Foods, as her mentor, she learned she had to be in supermarkets three and four days a week handing out samples of her sauces. And it was Renfro who put her in touch with National Food and Beverage, a Dallas food processing company, to produce the sauce to her specifications in commercial quantities.
Sales of Enchilada Olé sauces to grocery stores, helped by a recent order that put the line in 12 regional Kroger supermarkets this week, should be worth six figures in 2013, she said.
Aside from the support of friends and relatives, Perez found a financial angel in the unlikely person of Jerry Brockett, an 83-year-old martial arts master (taekwando black belt), who is a consulting pension actuary by profession as well as the founder of National Food and Beverage.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Brockett recalled asking Perez, who had come to National to pick up sauces it processed and bottled for her last October.
Perez shot back: “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
That impressed Brockett, who called the spunky, resourceful Perez one of the most remarkable people he’s meet in his eight decades on earth. And he was motivated to lend a hand.
Perez told him she had been approached by a potential backer, but didn’t feel right about the deal. Brockett suggested himself as a partner, ended up investing $100,000 for a 49 percent share, and then helped secure the business a $100,000 line of credit at Ennis State Bank. Much of that was drawn on to launch the North Side restaurant.
The loan has been repaid, he said, and the bank enlarged the credit line to $200,000.
“But we haven’t touched a penny. We can use it for expansion.”, said Brockett, who said he sold his remaining stake in National Food and Beverage last month so he could concentrate on growing the Enchiladas Olé brand.
“These businesses are built on three things — the brand, her recipes and Mary,” said Brockett.
The restaurant has been growing monthly, even during the dog days of summer, with July a good month for her even as some competitors griped about a drop-off because of the heat.
Helping behind the counter and over the griddle is an eclectic mix of workers, including Neville Reeves, 24, of Mineola, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business. He came on Brockett’s recommendation after trying his hand at launching a nutrition bar in Colorado.
“I like start-ups,” said Reeves, standing over a grill, of his decision to join forces with Perez.
Perez has ambitions to expand the restaurant concept, bringing her special take on enchiladas beyond the North Side, perhaps using a franchise model or expanding company-owned stores.
Needless to say, there are daily challenges.
She fired two employees for allegedly dipping into the till, and Enchiladas Olé has had two break-ins. Taken in the first robbery were tablet computers with expensive restaurant ordering software, and just last week burglars made off with her replacement computers along with the security system.
“We’re not going to give up,” said Perez, still full of enthusiasm and ideas for other types of enchiladas. “We’re going to secure our location and get bigger.”