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Published in Economic Development
El Granjero Mexican Grill founder Mercedes Lopez, left, and daughter Paola Mendivil, right. El Granjero Mexican Grill founder Mercedes Lopez, left, and daughter Paola Mendivil, right. COURTESY PHOTO

After recovering from pandemic, family-owned El Granjero plots next transition

BY Sunday, September 11, 2022 06:41pm

GRAND RAPIDS — The passion and soul that Mercedes Lopez puts into the food served at El Granjero Mexican Grill in Grand Rapids is evident to customers and the close-knit staff, which includes much of Lopez’s own family. 

“There is a soul in here,” said Paola Mendivil, who is Lopez’s daughter and business partner at El Granjero LLC. “The day she is not here, you’re going to know her absence because she has put so much love into the restaurant.”

Cactus is the main ingredient of many Mexico City dishes, which are found throughout El Granjero’s menu. Tlacoyo and sopes also have a direct line to Mexico City, where Lopez and her family resided before coming to Grand Rapids in 2005. They did not have any family ties to the area, nor did they know anyone here when they moved, but Lopez had some restaurant experience and got a job at what was then Tacos El Ganadero. 

In 2007, the owners announced they were closing down the restaurant and Lopez and Mendivil decided it was a great opportunity to take over and start their own business. 

“The first couple of years were hard for a restaurant but there were extra challenges with the recession,” Mendivil said. “It was a challenge to have customers here, but through hard work and through our innovative dishes, we were able to establish a reputation of a good family business and friendly service — always good, fresh food.”

The restaurant is busy most days with full tables and people picking up to-go orders inside and through the drive-thru window, which remained a valuable asset for the restaurant during the pandemic. 

Once the pandemic hit in the beginning of 2020, El Granjero — along with the rest of the restaurant and hospitality industry — again faced challenges of operating through hurdles outside of their control. They were able to quickly adapt by leaning on catering small events and switching to offering more family meals for groups of six to 10 people. 

“We have not returned to full capacity and operation hours,” Mendivil said. “We do open every day, but we cut hours and tables to keep up with limited staffing capacity. Instead of having staff work extra hours, we cut it down. That helps to continue the quality of our food and friendly service.”

The restaurant is now generating more in sales than it was before the pandemic, despite staffing challenges, Mendivil said.

  

Succession planning

Lopez is nearing 60 years old and is planning to retire soon, which spurred talks of succession planning among her family in recent years. Mendivil’s husband and sister also work at the restaurant among a group of about 20 employees.

“Unfortunately, when she decides to retire, the family will transition out of the business because we don’t have any other relatives here and my husband and I don’t want to take over the business,” Mendivil said. “It’s not my passion, but it’s been a journey over 15 years and I love helping my mother. But at the same time, I have my own ambitions and dreams, so I’m working toward that goal now. I won’t be taking over the business in a couple years when she retires, so we’re planning on what that will look like for the business, for the community and the employees.”

Mendivil and Lopez share a similar outlook on the family business, but have different skill sets that complement each other: While Lopez focuses mostly on the food, Mendivil serves as the face of the restaurant and manages the business side of the operation.

“I don’t even cook,” Mendivil said with a laugh. “My mom and I are both similar in that we’re driven. Our skills complement each other as a team. Sometimes there are disagreements and miscommunications, but we put family first and set aside being proud. A lot of it is about communication.”

When succession discussions started recently, the family could not talk about it without crying, because of how personal the decision would be, Mendivil said.

“It’s important to plan, because we want the legacy of the business to continue,” she said. “We’ve seen so many families here from the first day they were married to them bringing their children here. This is our baby. But something that we have to learn, especially in our Latina community, is how to let go and close the chapter. We’ve seen so many business owners that are tired, but don’t want to let their business go because it’s something they built.”

Even though Mendivil has no plans to carry on leading the family business, she will continue helping other small businesses in the community. 

“I was originally planning to launch my own consulting firm because I saw the need for other restaurant owners that wanted to launch their catering services like we did. I wanted to coach them so they had that opportunity and extra stream of sales,” Mendivil said.

Now, Mendivil helps other small local businesses get their start through her position at the nonprofit Grow. Formerly known as Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, Grow is a community development financial institution and small business microlender organization. 

Mendivil started working at Grow part-time in 2021 as a business development officer, and will transition to full-time this fall. She enjoys helping other families get their start, similar to how her family found a path forward when they moved to West Michigan.

“It’s important to have family-owned businesses because the families put so much passion and commitment into the business and community,” Mendivil said. “It’s hard to adjust, adapt and feel like you belong. That’s what family businesses do, embrace and support people that are here, and that’s really impactful.” 

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