Pictured above: El Burrito Express Owner Mila Lopez and her son, Philip.
I’m always astounded by families who create, sustain, and grow restaurant legacies through each passing generation. I wonder what it’s like for a family to center around a shared passion and way of living? The Lopez family embodies this lifestyle and their legacy lives on today in San Francisco. El Burrito Express is part of this family tree of Mexican restaurants and has two locations: one in the Sunset District and the other in Laurel Heights. El Burrito Express ( or EBX for short) is owned by the unstoppable Mila Lopez, a second generation restaurateur.
The story of a hard working family
Mila was raised in the restaurant business. She and her parents emigrated from Mexico when she was a kid. Her parents, Perfeco and Celia, worked extremely hard to open up their own cafe/restaurant, Celia’s Mexican Restaurant, back in the 1960s. Most of the taquerias at the time were located in Mission, the neighborhood that has a predominantly Latin American community. However, Celia’s was located on the west side in the Sunset District; it was the only taqueria around for miles. Mila worked at this restaurant from the time she was about ten years old and witnessed the ways in which the restaurant grew, so much that her parents opened up other locations in the Bay Area.
Work ethic passes on to the next generation
Perfecto and Celia weren’t educated. They possessed a quality, I’ll argue, that far surpasses traditional education systems: They had a tireless work ethic, which they passed down to their children. Over the years, Mila worked alongside her parents, witnessing the highs and lows of the restaurant industry and her parents’ dedication to their businesses. At the age of 25 years old, she found herself with an opportunity to open a “fast food” ( take-out/delivery only) burrito place. At the time she was a single mom with a degree in Economics, who’d already spent so much time in the restaurant industry herself. Thus, with the help of her parents and a few other business partners, she opened EBX in 1981.
Business started off slowly and remained that way for the next few years. Only the owners worked at the restaurant, and eventually the other partners decided to have Mila buy them out, as there simply wasn’t enough profit being made for their investment to be worth it. What proceeded over the next six years was the hard grind of working at the business.
“I was lucky that the workers were family that I hired. We worked it ‘family style’ day in and day out. We had to multitask to keep the business going. It’s where you’re always ‘on’. You’re never away from the restaurant,” Mila explains.
However, she remained optimistic during those years because she’d already seen what it was like to open new restaurants from her own family’s experience.
She knew that “once it hit, it hit.” That’s Mila’s way of describing the turning point where a business’s profit finally takes off. So she stuck by her restaurant, waiting for that day. Eventually, in 1987 business significantly increased and EBX started to fully sustain itself.
Healthy alternatives to traditional Mexican dining
EBX is not just known for the traditional dishes that people love, but also for striving to offer a wider variety of dietary options. They use vegetable shortening instead of lard in their dishes and they don’t use any preservatives or additives in their food. Everything is homemade fresh on a daily basis. While EBX started out serving the standard fare, Mila started to branch out to vegetarian and vegan dishes as well. She wanted to include choices for everyone.
Managing through the pandemic
When the pandemic first struck, business took a huge nose dive. Mila’s employees were nervous about coming to work. She couldn’t make enough money to pay her workers or the vendors. She closed down the restaurant for a month as a way to mitigate the debt she’d owe in due time. It was a difficult pill to swallow. At the end of the month, Mila’s mindset shifted back to when she first opened her business.
“It came to the point where I thought, ‘I’ve worked so hard to have my business’. Let’s just keep going.” She reopened, in spite of all of the uncertainty swirling around her. How long would this pandemic last? Will people still visit? Will she get approved for the PPP loan she applied for? She decided to revert back to her former model of working. This meant less employees, everyone had to work hard and multi-task, and everyone did everything.
However, there was a distinct twist this time around: the health factor. Mila’s son spent a week remodeling and cleaning everything in order to be up to the health department’s new code. PPE (personal protective equipment), updated cleaning methods, and plastic shields came into play.
“It was stressful. But I think when you’ve already gone through the ups and downs of the restaurant business, you know things will work out.” She concludes by saying that people go into the restaurant business because they have a passion for it. Owning a restaurant requires that passion in order to weather the storms that come with the trade.
The community surrounds EBX
“The customers are so supportive. They come a lot – they leave big tips for our employees. They’re our regulars who we’ve been serving for years. I remember some of the customers as kids, and now that they’re all grown up, they bring in their families to EBX. They all thought we weren’t going to reopen after we closed down for a month. It was really nice to see their support,” Mila explains to me.
When I ask Mila what she’d tell the San Francisco community, her words overflow with gratitude.
“I’m extremely thankful for them. If it wasn’t for the community, I wouldn’t have made it without them. They rallied around us. We have the best customers. It’s true. The love you get from this, when everyone pulls around you during a crisis…That’s amazing.”
Mila’s words remind me so much of how community is essential during this time. For those in the financial position to do so, check out your local businesses. There are so many other hard working, passionate business owners like Mila who rely on their communities for support.