Milwaukee Talks: La Fuente's Jose Zarate
For Jose Zarate, restaurant ownership has been a series of ups and downs. The once-packed Walker's Point La Fuente has struggled over the past five years and is no longer a hotbed of nightlife for both urban and suburban dwellers.
Whether or not La Fuente will spring back to what it once was is unknown, but Zarate is not giving up. He continues to work hard – and the addition of La Fuente restaurants in Wauwatosa and Waukesha, as well as an evolving 5th Street in Walker's Point – have him feeling more optimistic about the future.
Recently, he sat down with OnMilwaukee.com and spoke about his background, his family and his eateries.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where were you born and when did you come to the United States?
Jose Zarate: I was born in Mexico, three hours south of the Texas border, and raised in Mexico City. At 18, I moved to the United States for a better life, for work and for more opportunities. I lived in California, Houston, Chicago and finally, Milwaukee.
I came to Milwaukee to work in the tanneries in 1976. I worked at Gebhardt and later at Pfister and Vogel. I also worked in the foundries – Aluminum Casting in Bay View and another on the North Side.
OMC: So how did you transition into the restaurant business?
JZ: I bought this building (625 S. 5th St.) in 1983. I got a pretty good deal and I was going to UWM at the time and I needed money to pay for school. So I lived upstairs with my parents and rented this space (where La Fuente is today).
It was a bar first and then the owners of Acapulco restaurant had a lounge in here for about a year. In about 1986, Rudy (Barrago) from Rudy's Mexican Restaurant moved in. He was located on 6th Street right behind us and he came over and asked if I would lease this place to him, and I did. In 1990, Rudy bought the building next door, remodeled it and moved Rudy's there. So I ended up with an empty building.
I talked to Conejito (Jose Garza, owner of Conejito's restaurant who passed away in 2011) and a couple other people, but no one was interested and so I ended up running it, opening La Fuente out of necessity. I could not afford to have an empty building so I said, "Let's see what happens." And here we are today.
OMC: What were the early days of La Fuente like?
JZ: It was a struggle. It was not a success right away. I kept my day job for a year and a half. We wouldn't break even many days. I'd get out of work, go home, shower and come here trying to hustle customers to come in. I stood outside, Mexican style, with my menu trying to get Rudy's customers to come inside and try our food. I'd say, "Look, try it. If you don't like it, you don't have to pay."
Rudy was very busy, and his customers parked in the lot next to La Fuente (now La Fuente's northern-most dining room and patio), but we were empty. They would see me and cross the street so they did not have to walk past me on their way to Rudy's. It was really hard.
We were in our last days of business. My money was running out, my savings dried up, I didn't finish college, I felt like I needed to do something. And then, they just started coming. At first, they just came for our food, but not our drinks. They liked Rudy's drinks better. We were not real busy, but people continued to come over here and eat and then one day, that changed, too.
OMC: For a long time, the restaurant was just one room. When and why did you expand?
JZ: Yes, at first it was just the middle room. We only had 20 tables. But we were very successful for a while, we were packed. People would wait for hours. People liked it – they would come and wait outside. To me it was strange. But it was a good strange.
However, we outgrew the space. We were over capacity some nights. I needed an emergency exit. And so, even though I did not want to expand – I was afraid to spend the money – but I had to so we could raise our capacity. I bought the parking lot next door and built that room (to the north of the original space) in 1995. And we were still packed.
Around 1998, Rudy's closed. I bought the place and expanded again (to the south.) That was a major effort. We added the second floor. The original Rudy's bar is still in the space.
OMC: Do you use the second floor space anymore?
JZ: At one time it was open every weekend, but now we use it for special events and functions. Things are not what they used to be.
OMC: Where were your customers coming from?
JZ: They were mostly suburbanites. There were a lot of people from around here, too, but so many from the suburbs.
OMC: What attracted them here?
JZ: I really don't know.
OMC: When did business start to slow down any why? Was it the competition of other Mexican restaurants?
JZ: In 2007 or 2008. I don't think it was competition. I think restaurants in general suffered during those years. A lot of customers got older and they left. And also there are a lot more restaurants, not just Mexican restaurants, all over the place.
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The food is what brings the customers in or drives them away. The quality needs to come back if they want touring back the customers. Maybe adding some of the higher end dishes from Santos and Hemingway's.
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