7 Questions With…Tia Juanita Fishing Lodge Owner Ricky Martinez

If you’re looking for a taste of spicy Mexican cuisine alongside Cajun cuisine, then you might find yourself ready to be seated with a large menu at the whimsical wood-panelled restaurant known as Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp.

The southeast Texas restaurant chain started in April 2014 in Beaumont and was opened by owner Ricky Martinez. The restaurant was named after her Tía Juanita – her aunt Juanita. Martinez told The Enterprise that her aunt Juanita was married to a disabled World War II veteran who was shot in France. He remembers his uncle spending a lot of time fishing while his aunt spent a lot of time cooking fish.

The couple raised Martinez’s mother in West Texas, which fostered the close relationship that developed between him, his aunt and uncle. Martinez was born in Stanford, where his aunt later lived. He eventually moved to East Texas before finally moving to the Southeast about 15 years ago.

The move to Texas was prompted when he was recruited to be a general manager of a restaurant in 2007. Today, the restaurant that started with a name rooted in its family history continues to grow in popularity with the community. at several locations, including Port Arthur. , Lumberton, Winnie, Lufkin, Orange and Henderson.

Martinez provided the details to The Enterprise on how the business evolved, the challenges it faced and its secret ingredient to success today. He even shared a bit about some new projects that will be served soon.

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning. How and why did you get into the restaurant business?

A: I started as a pizzeria at Ken’s Pizza in Arkansas. A friend of mine recruited me to work there. I loved taking care of customers and decided to go into catering. I thought I was going to learn all aspects of it. So I started serving tables. I learned to cook and bartender at the restaurant where I worked, then I was asked to open a restaurant in College Station.

Q: What was your initial hope for the restaurant and how do you see your business in the next 10 years?

A: Martinez’s hope for starting the restaurant was to give people a good experience, teach employees, and know he was doing a good job based on community feedback. He tries to teach servers how to make the most money by providing the best service. He is planning three projects in 2022 and 2023. Although he cannot provide full details yet, he confirmed that at least one of the projects will be a new restaurant in Liberty for his son. The restaurant will have the same concept but a different name, “Tiger Harry’s”, named after his son Christian Harrison Martinez. He is also interested in having a large Tia Juanitas location in Beaumont like the one in Port Arthur.

Q: Since the opening of the Beaumont site, you have decided to expand. What made you feel confident that it was the right decision to invest in expansion and what kind of investment does it take to make it happen?

A: Martinez said his experience has given him the confidence to grow, but it takes more than that – he needs to recruit people he can trust to help him grow. He initially invested $70,000 in the first Tia Juanita store he opened.

Now they cost around $700,000 to $800,000 to remodel and redo, he said. Martinez said that in his early days, he actually lived at the back of the restaurant in an apartment he furnished with a shower, bed and TV.

When I finished working, I slept there until I had enough money to buy an apartment or a house. I put every penny I had into it. It took a while for it to really kick in. You can’t do these things just because you think you can do them or you want to do them or you’ve always wanted to have restaurants. That’s what kills a lot of people. Before that, I had 30 years of experience. You can’t run them and make them work unless you really know what you’re doing, because chances are you won’t.

After running three restaurants on his own, he tapped two former bosses, including operations manager Doug Clothier and the friend who originally got them the job at Ken’s Pizza in the 1970s, Rusty Wilson, for the job. help run the restaurants.

You’ll kill yourself trying to do it on your own, you gotta have people you trust. That’s how we’ve been able to open so many so quickly – we’ve opened about three in a year and a half and that’s a big deal.

Q: The first thing I noticed when I first entered Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp was a random assortment of objects on the walls. What is the story behind the style and what is the rule for what is displayed?

A: It originally started with a scuba diving theme mixed with fishing. We have lots of fishing and scuba diving stuff, of course rock and roll – everything from Elvis to the Rolling Stones. We like to think of it as a pop art museum. I order it all, have it framed, and then my son Christian Harrison Martinez does the decorating.

His son’s name evolved to “Tiger Harry” after his service in the US Navy. As they try to stick to fish, music and diving, the family has added rodeo, Texas, cowboy, Louisiana, Cajun, Mardi Gras and motors. outside.

Q: The pandemic has been a difficult time for the nation, including the restaurant industry. Your company, like many, has had to deal with loss of business, layoffs of employees, and even a fire that destroyed the Jasper location. While some businesses have been forced to shut down permanently, your business has survived. What was that experience like and how did you and your business get through it?

A: It was probably like everyone else. From the start we had to shut everything down and all we could do was take out food. It was just very difficult. The hardest part is that we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if it was going to last forever, a month or six months – we didn’t know.

We had to fire everyone. We laid off about 400 people, kept all the managers who were paid on salary and a few employees to help out. The managers cooked, they prepared takeout orders, they took cash for takeout orders, they went out and delivered the food and they just pulled themselves together.

There are three to four managers, sometimes five, in each store. They kept an employee or two or three to help out, and that’s how we got by. And once we started opening up to 20-25% we separated our tables and we did. People were just lining up outside the door, pretty much everywhere they wanted to go.

At Lufkin, we opened it in the middle of the pandemic and we could only accommodate 50% of the restaurant at the time. That’s how we opened, we opened at 50% capacity, but we didn’t stop and we just stopped – we just said, “Let’s go.”

Everyone masked. Back then it wasn’t mandatory yet, but we ended up wearing masks and some not. Once it became mandatory, we just had to do it.

Q: Over the years you have incorporated customer feedback. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from the community that has become the best investment for your restaurant today?

A: It’s about forming and developing a culture and setting guidelines early on so there’s no misunderstanding. Nobody likes to sound pretentious and say that we are looking for excellence. We try to be clear with everyone. Mobile phones are a big problem for every restaurant because people are very attached to them. We discourage that and it’s just part of our culture that we don’t have one.

It’s a really good job, our servers make a lot of money, and they just need to protect their jobs just by doing the things we ask them to do like being on time, having a clean uniform, hair clean and all that stuff that goes with culture.

Q: What is your advice to other restaurateurs, including those just starting out, planning to expand, or even struggling to recover from the pandemic?

A: You have to build the team. You cannot do it alone. You and your wife or partner cannot do this alone. You need to have a lot of experienced and knowledgeable people to come and help you do that. It takes a lot of hours to do it and if you and your wife or partner both do it together all the time, it can create friction.

You need to hire people who will be there, build the culture with them, and be enthusiastic about helping you get things done. Ask someone to help you do this. If you have an employee you want to train, you have to tell them everything you know, over and over and over again. That’s the main thing: again and again.

Bonus Q: Because we just need to know… what’s your favorite meal?

A: Well, right now it’s crawfish, he laughs. Normally I love steak nachos. I order them a lot. Our fried ribs are fantastic, I love those too, with the potato salad and charro beans. There are so many that are really good that I don’t order them all the time.

I always tell people that I can’t afford to eat that here. I just try to keep things simple. I’ll buy a Po’ Boy when I walk in. Once in a while, I’ll have friendly shrimp. My favorite is going to be the steak nachos.

All the food is something I would eat or cook myself at home. I feel like I’m a pretty ordinary consumer, like everyone else, so the real number is that it must taste good. The ribeye fajitas are one of my favorites, I almost never order that. But we’re going to make fajitas with a rib eye, and man, that’s pretty awesome.

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