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Published: Sunday, 6/22/2008

El Camino owner, Jesus Angel's winding road to success

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Jesus Angel outside his west Toledo restaurant, thriving at a site where several others failed. A key part of the business is the patio bar. Jesus Angel outside his west Toledo restaurant, thriving at a site where several others failed. A key part of the business is the patio bar.
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Jorge Hernandez serves Allegra Nunn, left, Patti Schlegel, Tammy Kruger, and Mindy Castle at El Camino at Sylvania Ave. and Douglas Rd. Jorge Hernandez serves Allegra Nunn, left, Patti Schlegel, Tammy Kruger, and Mindy Castle at El Camino at Sylvania Ave. and Douglas Rd.
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IF YOU'RE launching a risky business like a restaurant, it can't hurt the odds of success to have a leader with a name like Jesus Angel.

The co-owner and top executive of Toledo's successful El Camino Real group, who was given his name 54 years ago in a village near Guadalajara in southwest Mexico, reacts to the light-hearted observation with a polite smile.

But he quickly turns serious. "It takes service and quality and you have to be consistent on your food," he said.

Whatever Mr. Angel (pronounced Onhel) and his partners are doing, it's working.

The business' signature bar and restaurant, at Sylvania Avenue and Douglas Road in a building best known to many as home to the former Timko's Restaurant, is hot.

On warm evenings, the newly expanded patio bar is packed.

Inside, there is seldom a shortage of customers for the strolling mariachi band to serenade.

Since starting there seven years ago, El Camino Real has added a restaurant in a converted school on Woodville Road and, most recently, has expanded to Ann Arbor.

Mr. Angel won't publicly discuss revenues. But the West Toledo restaurant threw off enough cash last year to allow for a purchase of a former Friendly's restaurant next door for parking-lot expansion and possible development.

And Mr. Angel, a onetime migrant farm worker who put in 28 years at Chrysler LLC's Toledo Jeep Assembly complex, has a home in Mexico and a $600,000 house in the High Oaks Reserve development in Sylvania Township, records show.

The success of El Camino Real, together with that of a string of longtime restaurants around the area operated by the Cavazos sisters, defies the conventional wisdom that diners in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are too willing to bypass locally owned establishments to get to the newest national chain shop.

Cavazos family member Adela Mundt, co-owner of popular Loma Linda on Airport Highway, isn't sure why locally owned Mexican restaurants in the Toledo area seem to do better than chain establishments.

But Mexican food continues to be popular, she noted. Equally important to success, she conceded, is knowing how to mix tequila, triple sec, and lime juice into a winning margarita cocktail.

"People have gotten to be connoisseurs of margaritas," she said. "If you open and your margarita is no good, chances are somebody is going to tell you you're serving a lousy margarita."

At El Camino Real, margaritas and other drinks make up half of sales in summer and 30 percent in winter when the patio bar is closed, Mr. Angel said.

The West Toledo restaurant, in the DeVeaux Village Shopping Center, achieved a sales record in food and beverage last year, he said.

But so far in 2008, food sales have declined about 7 percent. Not only are diners fewer, but those who do show up are likely to order less, he said.

"I'm not the only restaurant owner who can tell you that," he said. "We are a lot busier than other places."

The East Toledo restaurant isn't as successful as the original but is "paying the bills," Mr. Angel said.

And it is too soon to say how well the Ann Arbor site will do.

Over the years, Mr. Angel has been an international antique collector, amateur soccer player, remodeling hobbyist, agave farmer, restaurant decor specialist, cook, and entrepreneur.

But he is self-deprecating.

"I'm a Jeep worker," he said. "Going into a business like this, I'm just lucky."

For a time in his youth, Mr. Angel appeared to be headed for the priesthood.

In the sixth grade, he followed a group of friends into a seminary school near his native Guadalajara. But he didn't finish the year, leaving the school and academics for good at age 13 when his family was unable to pay for books and clothing.

"I'm not embarrassed," he said.

He soon left Mexico with family members for California, where they followed the harvest from vineyards to olive, peach, and apricot orchards.

"It was hard," he recalled.

"But if you want to have money in your pockets, you have to earn it," added Mr. Angel, a father of five.

The family settled in Toledo when he was 17, after an older sister married a Toledo man she met while visiting Mexico.

At 19, he was hired at Jeep for $5.50 an hour - a decent wage at the time. He credits his years at the plant with helping him perfect the Mexican specialities now served at his restaurants.

Back when Jeep vehicles were being built in an antiquated plant along Jeep Parkway, it wasn't uncommon for groups of workers to bring hotplates and refrigerators for food preparation.

Mr. Angel's paid job was to set dies in the press shop. When the day's quota of hoods was met and the time came to switch to fenders, he was part of a team that installed the mold to produce the new part.

During down times, he whipped up fajitas and other Mexican specialties for co-workers. "It used to smell the whole press shop," he said, in clear but slightly fractured English.

But as long as the job got done, bosses didn't complain.

From there, he began selling Mexican food at local festivals in his off-time. He also volunteered to cook at festivals at SS. Peter and Paul Parish in South Toledo.

For a while, he operated a small restaurant in the food court of Franklin Park Mall, now called Westfield Franklin Park. "That was a mistake because the rent was too high," he confessed.

Throughout this time, he was an avid antique collector. He would rise at 4 a.m. to be the first in line at estate sales. On visits to Mexico, he hunted for antiques.

For a time, his dream was to move to Puerta Vallarta and open an antique shop.

Some of his finds were used to decorate the restaurants. Most of his collection has been sold, however. He gave up the hobby after starting a second family with current wife, Guillermina.

He played soccer on an amateur team for many years. But he was forced to give up the sport after double hip-replacement surgery when he was in his 40s.

At the start of this decade, he began to contemplate accepting an early retirement offer from Jeep's owner, then DaimlerChrysler AG.

At the time, he was involved in farming in Mexico. He hired workers to grow agave, the main ingredient in tequila, on 20 acres handed down through his family.

The plant was then fetching steep prices because of heavy demand and short supply.

The $100,000 he made from the crop, which takes up to seven years to be ready to harvest, was applied toward the first El Camino Real, in Bowling Green.

He operated the restaurant until sales started to slip after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the old building that housed the establishment began showing serious signs of wear.

He opened at the west Toledo location in January, 2001, shortly before retiring from Jeep.

Several restaurants that followed Timko's had failed in the spot. But he reasoned: "You're gambling wherever you go."

Mr. Angel did his own remodeling at the site and selected the color scheme and decorations.

An early decision that was a success was the patio.

With food sales down this year, drink sales on the patio are helping fill the revenue gap.

The place was packed on an evening late last week, with customers in their 40s and 50s giving way to a younger crowd as the night went on.

"It's a party atmosphere," said Amy Petro, an employee of a home-health agency who was at the restaurant to celebrate the 35th birthday of her husband, Dan.

"The music is great. It's a hip place to come in Toledo."

Added friend Marcy Steiger, a day-care director: "I love the outdoor atmosphere. Plus, they have authentic Mexican food."

Bruce Baumhower, who was a union representative at the Jeep plant when Mr. Angel worked there, is happy about the restaurant's success.

"He's killing them," said Mr. Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12.

"Angel is a class act," he said. "He's a hard worker. He never missed work at Jeep. It doesn't surprise me he's successful in business."

Mr. Angel owns the business with his wife, brother-in-law Felipe Ortiz, and Javier Covian. Despite the success he has found, he has no plans to open another El Camino Real. "I have to have family time," he said.

He arrives at the main restaurant in the morning and sometimes is still there in the wee hours of the next day. Noting his age, he said he plans to reduce his involvement in day-to-day management within eight years.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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