The team at El Rancho Grande hopes to succeed in Statesboro's crowded Mexican restaurant arena with generous portions and chef Adan Martinez's distinctive style.
Manuel Lopez, who owns the business, moved here in retirement from Salt Lake City after working for the state of Utah 22 years doing things such as operating heavy machinery. He hasn't owned a restaurant before.
Through his relationship with longtime friend Segundo Garfias and his family, Lopez teamed up with a chef and a general manager, both with experience. Martinez is Garfias' son, and El Rancho Grande general manager Jennifer Goodwin is Martinez's wife. Garfias also works in the restaurant's kitchen. Clearly, the four of them were involved in the planning.
"I had a little bit of money and I said, ‘Why not? Let's go,'" Lopez said.
How is it distinctive?
The most direct competitors for El Rancho Grande are El Sombrero, which alone has three locations, and El Jalapeno and El Rinconcito. When "Southwestern" chains Moe's and Barberitos and the purely fast-food Taco Bell are counted, and with another new place called Del Sur now opening, there will be at least 10 places to get a taco or a burrito in Statesboro.
So, how can El Rancho Grande stand out?
"One thing is our food portions are larger," Goodwin said, comparing specifically to other sit-down restaurants. "Like the proportions on the tortillas, they're sized bigger."
But Lopez turned the conversation to differences in cooking styles and Martinez's skill as a chef.
"Mexican food is Mexican food is Mexican food, but every cook has their own style," Lopez said. "Other restaurants' Mexican food, that's good too, but I like how he cooks."
"He definitely has a passion for cooking," Goodwin said of her spouse.
Goodwin and Martinez are not new to the area. They have been residents of Metter for several years. But Martinez has worked in restaurants all over the country, including in "Kentucky, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas, everywhere," his wife said.
Martinez said he learned his style of cooking from family, growing up in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz.
"Any state that you go in Mexico or each place, they each have their own traditions or their different styles that they fix things in different ways," Goodwin said.
She also has worked at restaurants on and off for years, having started at age 10 in her aunt's restaurant, where nieces and nephews bussed tables and assisted the wait staff.
Some of Martinez's standout entrees, he said, and some of the restaurant's early leading sellers, are the quesadillas, the fajitas and the carne asada.
At El Rancho Grande, a side dish that's available with most things on a Mexican restaurant's menu also gets compliments from customers as an entree.
"His rice," Goodwin said. "Everybody raves on the rice."
The rice is served in entrée versions with chicken, steak or shrimp, with two of those - "Arroz Chaos" with grilled steak and chicken - or with all three, the "Arroz Grande."
Fajitas come in these same variations, as well as a "Rancho Grande" fajita for two with pork and chorizo, and a "Hawaiian" version with pineapple, shrimp, chicken, steak, pork and chorizo, plus mushrooms and grilled vegetables.
Everything, including the beans and the salsa, is prepared fresh and nothing from cans, Goodwin said.
El Rancho Grande is now in its fourth week in operation.
It is located at 3000 Northside Drive West, in the Towne Centre plaza, across the highway from Food World. This property was previously occupied by the Cotton Patch Bakery and Deli.
"One of the things that kind of sold us on the location is because there's not a lot of places to eat at this end of town, and there are so many homes and so many subdivisions that they need a good place to sit down and eat," Goodwin said.
Hope to do more
Because the building was already arranged as a restaurant with a kitchen and serving areas, Lopez and his associates were able to open with minimum redecorating. They did install kitchen equipment and a few distinctly Mexican-themed touches such as the "Bienvenidos amigos" welcome signs.
Lopez said he would like to renovate and do more decorating later, adding big sombreros and "beautiful pictures," perhaps featuring horses and cattle to befit El Rancho Grande, "the Big Ranch."
The restaurant employs 12 or 13 people. Lopez said he would like to eventually open another one.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.