Imperio restaurante

Imperio restaurante

With only a few weeks left until the newest Guadalajara opens its puertas on Pantops, Restaurantarama met with Gilbert Lopez, the local Mexican chain’s owner, to try and uncover the secret of his multirestaurant success. We’re happy to report that he gave up the goods, and we’re going to share the formula with you, our loyal readers. Here it is: (1) Work hard, (2) Be on site as much as possible, (3) Give your key employees a stake in the business and (4) Treat your customers like they’re your family. Got that? O.K., now go and be successful restaurateurs.

Mexican empire: Owners Juan Ornelas (left) and Gilbert Lopez are set to open another Guadalajara, this one on Pantops.

Think we’re kidding or being flippant? Well, consider that Lopez’s latest Guad is his fourth. He also owns Guadalajaras (so named in honor of his parents’ birthplace), along with a small group of partners and the aforementioned share-holding key employees, on each of E. Market Street, Fontaine Avenue and Greenbriar Drive (the latter of which replaced a previous, short-lived Gaud at the site of what is now Chandler’s Bakery). The first location was E. Market, which he started in 1988 after scraping together $30,000 from friends. When Lopez wasn’t living at the restaurant in those early launch days, he says he was living in a tiny apartment within walking distance, where he slept with his wife and infant son in one room and rented out the other bedroom to his cook and cook’s son. And from such meager beginnings, Lopez created a dining empire—in addition to his Charlottesville spots, Lopez owns a stake in the El Agave Mexican restaurants in Ruckersville and Warrenton and Mi Hacienda in Richmond.

All right, maybe it’s not as simple as four steps—Lopez also has another principle: “Consistency is important,” he says. Lopez labors to ensure that when you walk into a Guad, wherever the location and whatever the night or season, you know you’re going to get the same quality of food and service. Of course, when Lopez dines at the restaurant, which he does with his family two or three nights a week, he says he can taste variances in different cooks’ sauces and their individual signatures on the dish. But those little deviations are O.K. Lopez trusts his cooking staff because he’s trained most of them from dishwashers. “I’d rather hire somebody with no experience and train them, than hire someone with a lot of experience. It’s very difficult to change a person’s ways.”

Mold your employees—O.K., so that’s another one. Add that to the consistency stuff and you get six steps—six simple steps to restaurant success. Oh wait, there’s one more: Find a form of physical and mental stress relief. Yes, despite what you and Restaurantarama might have thought, according to Lopez, you should not eat, sleep and breathe the restaurant biz. He says it took failing health and doctor’s orders a few years back to finally convince him to find an activity outside the restaurant. What he found was Tae Kwon Do, and now he’s a black belt. “It’s my passion,” he says, and he credits his adherence to the five tenets of the martial arts practice—courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit—for his business longevity and growth.

O.K., so add the stress-relief business and the five tenets to the other six steps and you get 12 steps—12 simple steps to restaurant success. We’ve given you the keys to the castle, people—now go out and build your own empires!

More dope

Last week we told you that the now-closed Orbit Billiards will soon become The Joint under the new ownership of John Adamson and Andrew Watson (of Mellow Mushroom fame). A few more kibbles for you to chew on: The billiard tables are headed out, some new parlor games popular with the college crowd are headed in, the stage is moving upstairs, the downstairs bar will be nonsmoking (you can still light up upstairs) and the menu concept is mighty juicy (we promised to keep the particulars a secret for now—but stay tuned for more info in due time!).

Got some restaurant scoop? Send tips to or call 817-2749, Ext. 48.

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