Hard work paves way to golden opportunity for immigrant – Southwest Report

Hard work paves way to golden opportunity for immigrant – Southwest Report – Cesar Rodriguez, owner of the Doneraki Mexican restaurants in Houston, is profiled

Ron Ruggless

The restaurant industry always has provided opportunities for immigrants. Stories of up-by-the-bootstrap successes are legion.

Cesar Rodriguez, owner of the Doneraki Mexican restaurants in Houston, is one such example. An entrepreneur, who continues to stay involved in day-to-day operations, Rodriguez recently opened his fourth unit.

“Managing the growth of the restaurant has been the most exciting aspect,” he says. “Opening a new location is a huge risk and investment. It’s similar to adding another child to your family–it’s a big thrill and worry.”

Now celebrating the restaurant’s 30th anniversary, Rodriguez remembers the booming Houston economy of 1973 that attracted waves of Mexican immigrants. In 2002 Hispanics made up 32 percent of Houston’s population. Rodriguez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, knew that pangs of homesickness were rampant among his newly arrived neighbors and saw an opportunity to bring them his comida casera, or home-cooked meal, in order to ease their transitions to life in America.

Like many Mexican-American immigrants who have made Houston their home, Rodriguez has embraced his local community. “Doneraki would not be here today without the love and support of Houstonians and Hispanics in particular,” says Rodriguez, who opened his most recent restaurant in the revitalized Gulfgate Center in Houston’s barrio area.

“Coming back to the barrio represents everything positive,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve been through many highs and lows over the years, and some of the obstacles have almost defeated us.”

Ed Wulfe, president of Wulfe & Co., the commercial real-estate developer of Gulfgate, says: “With his community roots in Houston’s Magnolia barrio and his thorough understanding of the area and the Hispanic market, Cesar knew very well just how underserved and underretailed the East End was in Houston. He seized the opportunity to bring a new Doneraki restaurant to his neighborhood and to contribute to its revitalization.” The new Doneraki seats more than 450 guests and employs 125 workers.

That’s a far cry from Rodriguez’ first Doneraki. In 1973, at age 23, Rodriguez handmade 150 chairs during breaks atone of his three jobs, and then, using his $600 income tax return and a coffee pot borrowed from his mother, he opened his first restaurant. He had moved from Monterrey with his mother and brother only two years earlier. He reportedly named the restaurant after Erakio, the inventor of tacos al carbon. The word “Don” implies respect.

Within the first few weeks of opening, however, Doneraki almost closed when city health inspectors told Rodriguez he had to install a $2,000 grease trap. Feeling defeated, since he did not have the money, he returned the keys to his landlady, who insisted on lending him the money and helping him overcome his first obstacle as an entrepreneur.

Rodriguez invested all of his money and energy into the restaurant. Lacking a car, Rodriguez carried up to 125 pounds of meat from the butcher shop six blocks away. To help increase business, he visited nearby nightclubs and invited people to Doneraki. Then he would run back to his restaurant eight blocks away to tell his staff that customers were on the way.

“In the early days we were located near Ninfa’s original restaurant,” Rodriguez recalls. “Mama Ninfa” Laurenzo, founder of Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant chain, “would often come over to visit, and we would talk about our community and the future of our businesses. She was a great inspiration to me–we watched our restaurants and Houston grow together. It was a very exciting time.”

Whenever he made a profit, Rodriguez put the money back into his restaurants, often going without a paycheck himself. He opened a location on Westheimer Road in 1989, providing exposure to an Anglo population as well.

In 1995 Cesar’s brother and sister-in-law, Victor and Veronica Rodriguez, opened a third Doneraki restaurant.

Doneraki also has lured its share of celebrities, including former President Jimmy Carter, actress Julia Roberts, former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, singer Julio Iglesias and singer Lyle Lovett–who claimed it as one of his favorite restaurants.

“Thirty years ago the Hispanic market supported Doneraki and made the restaurant part of the community,” Rodriguez says. “It’s wonderful to see the Gulfgate area revitalized and to be a part of this strong community. Once again, Doneraki will serve the Hispanic barrio and be a true neighbor.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group