Fajita Fiesta owner proud of his dishes

FRESNO -- Raúl Gutiérrez entered the restaurant business the way many do: bussing tables and serving guests.

But after years of serving international cuisine in some of Houston's finest restaurants, Gutiérrez yearned to get back to his roots, and introduce the world to his own twist on Mexican food.

It's been 20 years since Gutiérrez, 52, opened the first Fajita Fiesta restaurant in Fresno. A measure of his success was his selection in August as 2008 Businessman of the Year by the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"We still look to serve the best, no matter the price," Gutiérrez said. While other restaurants struggle to stay afloat during an unsteady economy, Gutierrez has never sacrificed value for cost, and believes that his customers appreciate that.

Born in Jalisco, México, Gutiérrez immigrated to California in 1972, and then moved to Houston in 1975. He came to America with one goal: to work.

While in Texas, he worked at various French and Italian restaurants, learning the business and discovering he loved it. Learning the unique flavors of other cultures, and having the opportunity to meet a wide range of people became Gutiérrez's passion. He described his experience as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," and asked himself why he couldn't open a restaurant of his own.

He married his wife María, 52, in 1979, and they soon started a family with their first two children, Rosario, 28, and Raúl Jr., 26.

Gutiérrez and his family moved to Fresno in 1986, and he began selling shoes and carpet for a living. But he always remembered the French and Italian food he served in Houston. His dream of opening a restaurant began to materialize, and now all he needed to do was save every penny to get the business off the ground.

Gutiérrez purchased the property in downtown Fresno where the original Fajita Fiesta stands today, and opened the restaurant in October 1988.

"It was exciting," Gutierrez said. "It's what we wanted to do."

Gutiérrez co-owns the restaurant with his wife, who also gained restaurant experience in Houston. They take pride in the unique flavors they were able to bring to the Valley, as well as their menu's appeal to a wide range of people.

He was inspired by the food of different cultures, and by incorporating these ideas with elements from the food of his childhood, along with his wife's family recipes from San Luis Potosí, México, the end result was a brand-new spin on Mexican food.

"Part of the success of Fajita Fiesta is that we brought our recipes from a different state and different parts of México," Gutiérrez said. "Just like music, not every artist is able to sing the same song."

María Gutiérrez said it was natural to open the restaurant because of their knowledge of the business they had from working in Texas. "It was really easy for us," María said.

Maria describes her recipes as completely different and fresh. "It's nothing close to California style," María said. Gutiérrez built his business on hard work, discipline, a strict schedule and maintaining consistent quality.

Gutiérrez took pride in introducing Fresno to their special chicken fajitas. Known for their popular tacos al carbón, the Gutiérrezes make their flour and corn tortillas from scratch every day.

Although there were times when the restaurant brought in a mere $30 a day, business is now booming, and Gutiérrez couldn't be more proud.

Gutiérrez opened the second location at Cedar and Nees avenues in 1999, and the third at Cedar and Shaw avenues in 2006. Gutiérrez's wife and older children manage the restaurants, and the whole family has learned the business firsthand. Younger sons Nick, 19, and Julio, 16, serve as waiters, and the youngest son, Antonio, 14, will soon join the family business.

John Hernández, executive director of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said Gutiérrez was voted Businessman of the Year because of his commitment to the community, and the example he sets for others.

"Raúl has been a fixture in the Hispanic community for 20 years," Hernández said. "He's worked from the bottom up."

Gutierrez's continued expansion of his business is also a reason for his recognition.

"He's a great success story," Hernández said.

Hernández recognizes how difficult the restaurant business can be. He believes that Gutiérrez is the perfect candidate for the award because he has mastered his craft, and built a reputation for honesty.

Gutiérrez attributes his success to long hours, hard work and the loyal customers who come in and spread the word about the restaurant.

"Having the restaurant family-owned makes a big difference," Gutiérrez said. "We all have the same interest."