Discerning diners can thank GATT for the expanding Puerto Vallarta chain of Mexican restaurants.
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which Mexico approved in 1986 to restructure its economy — thereby leading to closer ties with the U.S. — had enough of a devastating effect on rural Mexico that Esaul Rodriguez, founder and owner of the chain, said he was forced to move north.
GATT “killed the local economy in Jalisco,” Rodriguez’s hometown, he said at his 98 Newtown Road restaurant in Danbury. “Corn, sugarcane, even cattle prices fell drastically, so a lot of us emigrated to the United States.”
Then only 16, Rodriguez ended up in Seattle, where he began working at his uncle’s Mexican restaurant. Within five years, he said, he had moved up from busser to cook, eventually learning not just how to create many of the dishes on the menu but also the logistics of running a business.
Five years later, with his brother Juan — still his business partner — Rodriguez opened his own eatery in Coos Bay, Oregon.
“But the city had the highest unemployment rate in Oregon — 19, 20%,” he said. “And it seemed like there was a Mexican restaurant on every block.”
Flirting with Idaho (“I didn’t have a great feeling about it.”) and Utah (“A lot of Mormons, who, of course, don’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol.”) led nowhere, so Rodriguez went to the library and found that Connecticut at the time had the highest per-capita income. Thus was the first Puerto Vallarta, in West Hartford, born in 2000.
Since then Puerto Vallartas have popped up in Newington, Middletown, Southington, Avon, Orange and, in 2016, Danbury.
The chain’s next location will be at 2000 Blackrock Turnpike in Fairfield, sometime between Aug. 15 and 20, “depending on how the work goes,” Rodriguez said. “We’re 99% done now.”
The 6,000-square-foot Fairfield site, at the former location of Bear and Grill, will include a 1,000-square-foot patio that alone can hold 100, in addition to the approximately 300 who can sit indoors. Rodriguez said he’s spent about $2 million on the Fairfield location — not to mention about 15 years.
“We have been very interested in Fairfield for a long time,” he said. “But there is a certain amount of square footage that we prefer, the parking lot is very important, the street and the rent has to be right.”
Population, income and support for neighboring businesses are all factors in deciding where to open, Rodriguez said.
“We are not the most expensive place to eat, but we’re not the least expensive either,” he said. “Our feeling is that if you’re in an area where other places are doing well, you are likely to do well. If the nearby places are doing badly, your chances of doing well are not so great.”
Along with Juan, two other Rodriguez brothers — Esaul is the sixth of 10 siblings — are involved with managing the growing Puerto Vallarta empire. All came to the U.S. at different times, again driven by GATT’s impact on the Mexican economy.
As for what sets his restaurants apart, Rodriguez — who still develops most of the chain’s recipes — pointed to a focus on freshness and high-quality ingredients, along with fast and friendly service.
Factors like those “have turned us into a destination for a lot of people,” he said. “We get customers here (in Danbury) not just from the rest of the county but from New Rochelle, Queens, even Brooklyn.”
Asked whether there are more Puerto Vallartas to come, Rodriguez grinned.
“We’re always looking to grow,” he said, “and as we continue to develop from a sort of mom-and-pop organization to one that’s more corporate we could explore franchising. We’re looking at all the options. I’d like to get into New York state, if not necessarily New York City. But right now we’re happy where we are.”