Recipe for success as complex as family sauces at McCook Mexican restaurant
The sautéed vegetables and shrimp sizzled like they were angry. Steam rose from the fajita plate as the waiter added it to his extended arm, already four plates deep. With precision almost like a dance, the waiter weaved through the restaurant and finally presented us with our lunch. The table was filled with a bounty usually reserved for a special occasion. Plates of burritos, enchiladas, fajitas and hot house-made tortilla chips to accompany the homemade guacamole, salsa and cheese sauce. The two of us were outnumbered by our menu selections but we were instructed to do so by a very wise woman.
We were in McCook on a Saturday to meet a certain young entrepreneur. Yaloany Palma and her husband, Jesus, are the owners of four Mexican restaurants in south central Nebraska and northern Kansas. We arrived at El Puerto just before noon. Norris Avenue was already buzzing and parking spots were in high demand.
Yaloany quickly greeted us at the hostess stand with a warm smile and a firm handshake. It was evident to see why this place was the flagship of a chain of successful restaurants. The interior was authentic with hand-carved booths and beautifully painted murals of rural Mexican landscapes. There was a sense of professionalism in the air usually reserved for big city restaurants.
She took us to a booth that had a great view of the restaurant. I like to think she gave us the best seat in the house because we were interviewing her, but I quickly figured out it was so she could keep an eye on the lunch service. A true restaurateur never lets down their guard, especially in their own establishment. Even with her eyes often checking in with the front door and the wait staff, Yaloany began sharing her story, how she came to be a successful business owner in rural Nebraska.
With nothing more than moxie
Yaloany came to the United States by herself at 14 with nothing more than moxie and the self-taught belief that hard work and discipline are the tools to both survival and success. She started washing dishes in her uncle’s restaurant in Independence, Kan. From the back of the kitchen, she quietly perfected her English and was a diligent observer of the inner workings of the restaurant business. Yaloany spoke of her uncle’s restaurant with great respect.
“It’s all about the sauces,” she said. Yaloany and her uncle hail from the Jalisco region of Mexico, and it was there he cultivated his traditional sauces and shared them with her when she decided to open a restaurant in Nebraska.
It was also in her uncle’s restaurant that she caught the eye of a waiter, Jesus, a young man also new to this country. They fell in love and married. Soon he was managing the restaurant and she was excelling in various positions outside the kitchen. For their anniversary in 2008, Jesus asked Yaloany if she wanted to go on a trip.
“I was so excited to go. I packed my bag and we set off on our vacation,” she said. “Jesus is very good with maps. We drove and drove through prairie and nothing, and then we came to a town. It was McCook. He said, ‘Come Yaloany, I want to show you a place to buy for a restaurant.’ I didn’t know what to think.”
Perfect place for a restaurant
“I’m not a change person. I don’t like change too much”, she said as she smiled and waved to a few regulars who had just entered. As if it were timed with precision, seconds later a handsome young man appeared at the host stand, quickly grabbed three menus, flashed Yaloany a bright smile and ushered the diners to their table. “That is my husband Jesus”, she said with a sparkle in her eye.
She was reluctant to invest her life savings in a business of her own, in a town where they were strangers. But the pioneer spirit was in her blood, and with the support of her husband and the business sense she had honed working for her uncle, they leased a commercial space and started a new life for themselves.
The old restaurant space had sat empty for several years and bringing their vision of El Puerto to fruition proved no easy feat. Yaloany and Jesus spent four months working tirelessly to get the space open as soon as possible. They did all the work themselves, with the exception of a local plumber and electrician to bring things up to code. It was during this initial project that Yaloany taught herself the process of starting a business just as she had observed how to operate a restaurant while working for her uncle.
Success follows hard work
Their work paid off. Within a year, the success of El Puerto allowed them to purchase the building. They moved in upstairs and started a family. This building quickly became the hub of their entrepreneurial endeavors. Having meticulously managed the start up of their own restaurant, they started looking for additional opportunities. They opened another El Puerto in Concordia, Kan., and when that restaurant was paid off in a year and running smoothly, a third location was started in Hastings. Recently, there was a ribbon cutting for their fourth restaurant, which opened in Minden under the name El Agave.
Their success comes as a result of their keen business sense and their strong work ethic. They never open a restaurant without thoroughly researching a community. Attention is paid to adequate commercial space, the size of the town and its surrounding area. A trustworthy manager is also important. And every week either Jesus or Yaloany travel to all four restaurants to check in and make certain operations continue to meet their high expectations.
We continued to feast as we talked. With each bite we couldn’t contain our enthusiasm for this well-executed Mexican fare. Without knowing it, we came to the same realization Yaloany spoke of earlier; it IS all about the sauces. They were authentic and rich and gave the food at El Puerto a complexity that can’t be found in most Mexican restaurants in rural Nebraska.
Watching the American Dream in action
It’s hard to comprehend the level of success achieved by these young entrepreneurs. Seeing the American Dream play out before your eyes is both exciting and inspiring. Yaloany sat quietly for a moment, surveying her restaurant, which had almost reached capacity within the hour we had been there.
“I like to invest in myself,” she said. “When I come into this place and know it’s mine, I feel so happy. I feel proud of our accomplishments. When I see myself as an employer, I feel proud to see all the people I give jobs to.”
Yaloany then examined our tabletop and looked pleased that we managed to finish almost every bite.
“Can I get you anything else?” she quickly said as if she was uncomfortable speaking about her own success. “Would you like to see a dessert menu?”
Sadly, we had to decline but that only gave us another reason to come back or try one of her other restaurants. But what is it that makes El Puerto so successful?
“Great food and great service,” Yaloany said. It is apparent she has mastered both, but the process of achieving that is far from simple. It is as complex as the family sauce simmering back in the kitchen. And this is only just the beginning.
“I’m just getting started,” Yaloany said. “I don’t know my limit.”
For more information…
Yaloany and Jesus Palma
311 Norris Ave
McCook, NE 69001
Other El Puerto Locations
1008 S Burlington Ave
Hastings, NE 68901
217 W 6th Street
Concordia, KS 66901
Minden – El Agave
548 N. Minden Ave
Minden, NE 68959