‘Say yes to tacos’Published 12:38pm Tuesday, July 3, 2012
El Amigo Pepe, 1140 S. 11th St., has been making a name in Niles for eight years — four since moving from Fifth Street.
“Customers are happier with this location,” Jose Mendez said.
And happy, loyal customers are the key to El Amigo Pepe’s success.
This family-operated business’ name means “The Friend” Pepe, a nickname for Jose. The operation involves seven family members.
“My dad has a lot of friends in the restaurant business, and not all of them are doing as well,” says his oldest daughter, Gabriela Morales, who at 23 has been waitressing half her life and brought in her husband of a year.
“We know our customers and they know us,” Gabriela said. “We’ve seen their kids grow up and they’ve seen us grow up. So many regular customers know us by name and we know what they want before they sit down. My parents are super friendly. My dad will give you the shirt off his back, so people are always there when he needs help. I tried to walk away and work at a hospital, but I had to come back. You miss the people.”
Getting in the restaurant business Jose chalks up to a “crazy idea. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had a place at Sister Lakes, then we moved to Michigan City, then came here” after a truck driver suggested Niles.
They previously did farm work, from grapes to celery, in Decatur.
In business since 1994, Jose and Ana also ran a grocery store.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
“We started with a little menu,” Jose said, compared to 14 kinds of burritos, including vegetarian and feo — “ugly.”
El Amigo Pepe has been expanding its profile, from local festivals and fairs to launching a Facebook page.
Jose does the Cass, Van Buren and Berrien fairs, Niles bluegrass and apple festivals and Red Bud motocross events in Buchanan.
Whoever cooks follows Jose’s and Ana’s recipes for authentic central Mexican cuisine. Jose’s specialty from Michoacan state is carnitas, pork with lime and cilantro.
“Everything is done fresh,” Gabriela said.
“We make chips three times a day and salsa from tomatoes,” which probably came from Shelton’s.
“Everything is done according to what people want,” she said. “Customers are always right.
“It’s been getting very busy and we’re thankful for being so loyal to us.
“We try to keep prices low (like family-friendly 10 for $10 taco Tuesdays) because we know the situation a lot of our customers are in.
“Sometimes, we’re so busy it’s hard to get to them and they stack up the dishes, wipe their own table with a rag and wait.”
Sybiotic relationships are cherished.
“We go to Walmart to get things, and Walmart people come here. Tyler’s people come in all the time and send over people buying cars.” Police officers who patronize the place praise Ana’s purple shirt, “Say no to drugs, say yes to tacos.”
“They don’t eat donuts, they eat tacos,” Gabriela laughs.
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