MODESTO -- When Rafael Armenta cleaned tables, washed dishes and cooked at one of El Pollo Loco restaurants in Los Ángeles 29 years ago, the thought of one day owning a restaurant himself seemed like a far-fetched dream.
Today, Armenta owns eight El Pollo Loco Restaurants in Merced, Turlock, Modesto, and Stockton.
And although he is a very successful entrepreneur he still remains humble and recalls his journey to business ownership.
"By 1988, I was running one of the restaurants, so I learned from the bottom to the top," said Armenta, 44.
That same year he bought a small taquería, "so I went from working for somebody to being the owner."
In 1994, the Fresnillo, Zacatecas, México native got the chance to buy his first El Pollo Loco restaurant in Modesto. So Armenta sold his taquería, moved to Modesto and took over El Pollo Loco in Plaza Parkway.
The owners were not making enough money to keep the restaurant open, Armenta said. But with his hard work -- 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week -- and dedication, the restaurant went from making about $7,000 in sales a week to $34,000 a week.
Armenta says he turned around the restaurant because he knows how the system works.
"I know inside the kitchen, the management, so I notice when there's a problem. You know they're not making the salsa right. You know they're not cooking the beans right. That's my life," he said.
Armenta came to the United States in 1980 to make enough money to send back home to his parents and help pay for his own college tuition. He wanted to become a teacher but life.
"When I was in México, I was going to school, and I noticed it was taking a lot of money from my parents. So I came here wanting to earn four-to-five thousand dollars and then go back. I started working, and I got my own place and car. I liked it," Armenta recalls. "First I worked as a dishwasher, and wanted to be a cook. I did that, and then wanted to be a cashier. I did that, and then wanted to be a manager. I did that, too, and then wanted to be a business owner. And I am."
Armenta, who is the father of four, believes the reason why he became successful is because he surrounded himself with the right people and was always responsible.
"I got close to people who did things the right way. I talked to business owners who were successful and learned from them," said Armenta, who became a U.S. citizen in 2001. "Being responsible and consistent is my formula. There are a lot of opportunities for everybody in the United States. But in order to be successful, you have to be responsible. That's No. 1."
His experience is something Armenta is very proud of and likes to share with his own employees.
"I like to teach others what I know so that they do their job right," he said. "I have told our cooks many times that I started where they started. I've told them that they, too, can see opportunity. If they do what's right and be responsible, they will be successful."
And for those who would like to start their own business Armenta too has a few words of advice.
"If you've been working in a shoe store, and you want to open a business, you have to go through that line. Because you know about working in a shoe store, and if you want to open a restaurant, it's going to be very, very difficult," he said. "You need to know everything about what you want to do, have passion for what you do and love what you do like it's your baby."
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