A Young Start
With roots in the food industry stretching back to the 1940s, Juanita Zepeda Ray, co-owner of el Azteca Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar, knows the meaning of hard work and perseverance. The oldest of 14 children, she spent her teenaged summers working alongside her siblings and parents (migrant workers living in Monroeville), picking fruits and vegetables for area farmers.
As an industrious high school student, Juanita held a weekend job at Azar’s Restaurant.
“I got $15 in tips one night,” she says, still proud of what was then a windfall. “I wanted to quit school and work full time, but my father wouldn’t let me.”
The first business venture for Juanita and her husband, Michael Ray, (deceased) was Our Place, a tavern on Calhoun Street, but the couple had a dream of opening a Mexican restaurant. When Helmsing’s Lighthouse Restaurant went up for sale, the Rays partnered with Juanita’s sister and brother-in-law, the late John Rodriguez. With very little capital on hand, they bought the business and opened it as el Azteca in 1973.
Open for Business
“We weren’t afraid to take risks because we’re hard workers,” says Juanita. “We were determined to succeed. You have to have that mentality to accomplish what you believe in.”
Opening night at el Azteca, however, put that attitude to the test. The Ray and Rodriguez team had to borrow $600 to fund the cash drawer, and they had to fend for themselves in the kitchen because the cooks quit.
“Mike and John took off their suit jackets, put on aprons and went to work,” Juanita says, remembering that, at the time, the men had little cooking experience.
New Mexican fare at el Azteca has been introduced gradually, and family recipes are still the foundation for many menu items.
“Mike modified some of my mother’s recipes, trying to produce the best taste,” recalls Juanita. “He created the mole sauce that we’re known for by studying Mexican cookbooks and even traveling to Mexico.”
“My dad created sauces to compliment the flavor of the meat,” adds co-owner Cristina Ray-Durnell. “Many of our dishes aren’t necessarily traditional. They are our style.”
Change is in the Air
Cristina, who began in the family business as a teenager in 1991, says that she never felt pressured to dedicate her life to it. Years later, with a degree in business management from IPFW (class of 2007), she had her own vision for the restaurant. Cristina brought textbook knowledge and eight years of experience running her own dance studio to her parents’ business.
Mike, Juanita and Cristina each had a niche in the restaurant. Mike oversaw the kitchen, Juanita supervised the dining room and Cristina managed the business. Cristina recalls one Sunday afternoon in February of 2008 when they were all in the office and had an impromptu business meeting.
That chance meeting couldn’t have had better timing, because within 24 hours, Mike unexpectedly died, leaving his wife and daughter to carry on the business.
“I worked alongside my dad for six months before he passed away,” says Cristina, grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him.
The el Azteca team rallied together and kept things going. Kitchen manager Valentin Ruiz took on the cooking responsibilities, Juanita picked up more of the business end and Cristina took over just about everything else.
Catering to Taste
With many area restaurants serving Mexican cuisine, what distinguishes el Azteca?
“We make everything in-house, except tortillas,” says Cristina. “We’re known for our sauces and our vegetarian black bean soup. We’ve used the same ingredients for 40 years. That—and our excellent service—is what sets us apart. We don’t claim to serve authentic Mexican food. We include traditional items on our menu and adjust recipes to suit the taste of our Fort Wayne customers.”
Juanita has two pieces of advice for others with a business vision:
“First, you have to be a hard worker and determined to achieve your
goal. And second, you must have a plan for funding. We had a goal and
we went for it,” she says with the satisfied smile of accomplishment.