200 years of service: The work lives of 5 El Cholo employees

Anyone who works in a restaurant will tell you: It’s not easy. And it’s increasingly rare to see restaurant workers not only making a career out of their job, but staying at a restaurant throughout their working lives (if only because most restaurants don’t exist for more than one).years).

But El Cholo, the venerable Mexican institution founded nearly a century ago, is a comeback in more ways than one. Many employees have stayed. And stay. At the Western Avenue location, there’s a hand-drawn plaque honoring more than a dozen employees of the “20-year club” — and that doesn’t affect longtime employees who work at other locations.

A plaque recognizing and celebrating employees with more than 20 years of service is hung on the wall.

A plaque recognizing and honoring El Cholo employees with over 20 years of service hangs inside the dining room at the Western Avenue location.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Ron Salisbury, grandson of El Cholo’s founders (who has run the restaurant for nearly 70 years) attributes the restaurant’s ability to retain employees in part to fostering a culture of balance. “I want people to feel that we are all important. Not only as a cog make the restaurant go, but let’s respect each other. And that’s how we try to go through life,” says Salisbury.

I chatted with five of El Cholo’s longest-serving employees, who have dedicated more than two centuries of their dedication and hard work. Together, they did everything one can do for a restaurant: cook, serve, butcher, manage, prep – even perform maintenance.

In an era that has seen the unification of work culture and marked loyalty between employers and employees, especially in such a physically demanding environment, That kind of longevity is very rare. And it might not be something we’ll see again any time soon.

“I don’t think we’re going to see people who are going to stay with you for 40, 50 years,” Salisbury said. “They came up with a different way.”

Sergio Ochoa, chef

Sergio Ochoa sits at an outdoor table, in front of an ornate mural.

Chef Sergio Ochoa of El Cholo: “When I came to the United States, in my mind I wanted to find a job so that I could earn money to buy a house for my mother. Or my own house, or buy my own car. “.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Sergio Ochoa, the head chef of El Cholo, has worked for the restaurant for 41 years. Originally from Michoacán, Ochoa followed his father, who periodically came to America in the 1960s and 1970s as a seasonal farm worker. “In those years, commuting was easy,” he says.

As the oldest in a family of seven children, Ochoa wanted to earn money for the family. In the late 1980s, at the age of 17, he was connected to the dishwasher in El Cholo through a cousin.

That lasted for a week. He has skills to work in the agricultural sector, and was promoted to be a prep chef. “I can hold a knife and learn quickly,” he said.

Sergio Ochoa stands in the kitchen.

Sergio Ochoa, from the dishwasher to the chef of El Cholo.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I was making $3.25 per hour when I started,” says Ochoa. But a manager noticed him and raised him to $3.50. “He said, ‘I like the way you work. “Ochoa started learning the skills that helped him on his way to becoming a chef: “Cut tomatoes, cut peppers, make fries in a deep fryer, roll taquitos, roll chimichangas. “

Another opportunity arises when a chef is in Mexico and does not return. Within a year, Ochoa had gone from dishwasher to chef. By 1992, he had become a chef and was invited by the owner in 1997 to open the restaurant’s Santa Monica location.

When asked why he chose to stay in El Cholo for so long, Ochoa paused. “When I came to the United States,” he said, “in my mind, I wanted a job so I could grow up. I want to find a job where I can earn money to buy a house for my mother. Or my own house, or buy my own car. “

He has had experience working in jobs with little prospect of advancement. But at El Cholo, he feels the restaurant can help him achieve his goals: “To sustain my family; to help my family. “

Now with a family of her own, Ochoa has no regrets about her path. “My dream has come true. Because I’m still working here, 40 years.”

Moises Torres, cooking

Moises Torres sits in a booth at El Cholo restaurant.

Moises Torres has worked at El Cholo since 1982.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

As a chef at El Cholo’s West Avenue location, Moises Torres started working at the restaurant nearly 40 years ago. Originally from the Mexican coastal state of Nayarit, Torres came to California to work as an orange picker before following an uncle to work in El Cholo. With no culinary training, he worked under the guidance of other chefs and El Cholo’s chef at the time, Joe Reina, to become a chef preparing and learning to butcher.

Torres enjoyed his time at El Cholo well enough (“I never thought of leaving,” he said) but was a pragmatist: “If I had another job, it would be like that. ,” he say. Work is work, so why mess with a good thing?

Moises Torres is standing in the kitchen, stirring something with his right hand while looking at the camera.

Cook Moises Torres has worked at El Cholo since 1982.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

It could have been a bit of serosa creeping in: When I asked Torres if he was ever homesick, he sincerely replied, “Yes. Right. That’s why I will retire in December and go there… [I’m] 62! (His manager has said Torres plans to retire before then.)

He said he looks forward to visiting home again, seeing his family and enjoying his favorite food. comida Nayarita: pescado zarandeado.

Jaime Cornelio, the food runner

Jaime Cornelio was sitting at a table, with a round mirror on the wall behind him.

Jaime Cornelio has been an employee of El Cholo for over 40 years.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Jaime Cornelio started working at El Cholo at the age of 18, following his brother, Antonio. He has worked fully for 40 years at the Western Avenue location but has no immediate plans to retire.

Close-up of Jaime Cornelio's shirt, with the words "El Cholo, estimated 1923.95"

Jaime Cornelio.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“Many of us have been here for so many years,” said the food runner, smiling as if to say, what else?

Cornelio was married and had children with a woman from the same town where he grew up – Villamar, in the state of Michoacán. He still thinks about the dishes at home, especially sweet corn tamales called uchepos (El Cholo’s most famous dish is also sweet corn tamales, made with cheddar cheese). Overall, he doesn’t think Mexican food in the US is too different from food in Mexico, but he notes one key difference in food at home: “It tastes better. There is a lot of chile. “

El Cholo is known for its stream of celebrities who have dined at the restaurant over the years – I asked Cornelio to indulge me in a little name and he won’t let me down: Elizabeth Taylor, Magic Johnson and Don Francisco of the famous “Sabado Gigante”.

Justino ‘Tino’ Romero, manager

Justino Romero stood inside between two tables and in front of a wall of colorful botanical frescoes.

Justino Romero.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In 1979, at the age of 20, Justino Romero went to work with a friend who worked as a table vendor in El Cholo. A manager asked him if he wanted a job. 43 years on, and the Jalisco native has worked most of his life at El Cholo’s La Habra site. Currently, he works as a manager and day service.

“I’m happy to be here,” Romero said. “I see the business as my own business. If you don’t see it that way, you’re in the wrong business.” The way he sees it, the company has helped him support his family over the years, and he says he feels an obligation to repay that loyalty. “I feel like part of the family,” he said.

Justino Romero leans against the wall in El Cholo restaurant.

Justino Romero.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Originally from the town of Rincon de Mirandilla, Romero was the third eldest of 22 children.

Meal times are very simple. “We barely eat meat because there’s no way you can eat meat every day,” he said. “Pretty much my mom’s eggs or beans, rice, and tortillas.” On special occasions, the family will have cocido – beef and vegetable soup.

When he was 17 or 18 years old, Romero left his hometown for the US Like many people have made that journey, his goal was to earn money to send back to his homeland and to help support his family.

“So sad. It was scary,” he said. “When you cross the border without papers, it’s very scary. Now, it’s even worse. But in those days, it was difficult. In the trunk of a car: Close. It is so difficult. “

After a short stint at another restaurant, Romero landed in El Cholo. Over the decades, he’s seen the kids at the restaurant grow up and have kids of their own.

“You can see the first, second and third generation pretty much every week,” he said. “Families.”

Sue Killian, the server

Sue Killian stands at the counter at El Cholo restaurant.

A mother of four, Sue Killian began working the night shift at El Cholo in an effort to stay home with her children during the day while her husband worked. 47 years later, Killian, now 80, only works part-time at the restaurant while taking care of her ailing husband full-time.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In 1975, Sue Killian and her husband were looking for a way to earn extra money to support their four young children. Killian’s husband works during the day, so the logic is that she could work at a restaurant in the evening and they would trade off caregiving duties.

Killian just celebrated 47 years at El Cholo. She also just celebrated her 80th birthday. Killian has always been a waitress at the restaurant — except, she notes, for the first six months on the job, when she was a hostess. She currently works several days a week and has no plans to retire.

When Killian, who was from Coldwater, Mich. (“They had a season that was, I think, livable,” she said), moving with her husband to a more temperate climate in Berkeley in 1964, she admits to having experienced some shocks. culture. “That was wild for us,” she said. “We live in a small small town.” In 1969, they moved to Southern California when her husband was transferred.

Sue Killian was sitting in the restaurant booth, looking out the window.

Sue Killian.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, in addition to El Cholo, Killian has also worked for the California Farm Bureau, employed as a contractor for a construction company, and opened a tannery.

“I get bored at home,” she said. “I like to see people; I don’t like [cooped] up.”

Killian talks about the joy of seeing people grow up in the restaurant over the decades, as well as the dedication of his colleagues during the staffing tough times that are pervasive in the industry.

“I drive down the street and pass by nice restaurants that are actually a chain, and they’re having a hard time getting people to work for them. El Cholo doesn’t have that problem,” she said. “At least this one doesn’t.”

https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-09-15/el-cholo-mexican-restaurant-longtime-employees 200 years of service: The work lives of 5 El Cholo employees

Russell Falcon

Russell Falcon is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Russell Falcon joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing russellfalcon@ustimespost.com.

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