The story of how Coyoacan, a Mexican restaurant based in South Georgia, came to be is about as classically American as it gets. Fernando Pena, owner of the Valdosta, Georgia, location, has been in the restaurant industry for most his life.
“The restaurant business is something we’ve done since as long as I can remember,” Pena said. “I grew up watching them (my family) do this every day after school. I grew up in the back of a restaurant.”
Pena’s mother, Guadalupe, worked almost every job imaginable in restaurants over the years, including serving, cooking, and washing dishes. Eventually, she opened her own restaurant called Puerta del Sol in Nashville, Georgia.
“My mother always wanted to have a restaurant. … She wanted to be at the top,” Pena said of his mother’s decision to start her own business.
Pena’s parents eventually opened the first Coyoacan restaurant in Quitman, Georgia, in 2005. Selecting the original location in the small town on Highway 84 was an easy decision for the family. There were no other Mexican restaurants in or near Quitman, and being located at the intersection of two major highways meant travelers would be sure to stop in and eat.
Guadeloupe’s willingness to work any and every job to gain experience was passed on to her son. Pena started working in his family’s restaurant while still in high school. Although primarily a server, he also learned how to cook, bus tables, and tend the bar, filling in wherever he was needed. He eventually moved on to completing managerial duties that included handling financial matters, inventory, and staff. Shortly after graduating high school, his role at the restaurant became a full-time job.
Pena and his father opened Coyoacan’s Valdosta location on Oct. 31, 2013, and Pena runs the show himself. When asked why they expanded to Valdosta, Pena said that although there was more competition (There are several other locally-owned Mexican restaurants in the city.), the city’s population was big enough for them to survive.
“As long as we gave it the best we could, we would have enough clientele to make it work,” Pena said.
Pena thinks that Coyocan’s emphasis on treating customers well and serving quality food sets it apart from other Mexican restaurants in town.
“Customers always tell me the food is fresh,” Pena said. “We cook everything daily. Also, the fact that whether you go to Quitman or Valdosta, you’re going to see either me, my dad, or my mother there, someone who cares about the place and owns the place.”
One of Coyoacan’s signature items, Angela’s Mix, was actually created by and named after one of their loyal customers. According to Pena, Angela went on a diet plan and couldn’t eat what Coyoacan served on a regular basis, so she asked them to create a meal for her that consisted of grilled chicken and seasoned vegetables. Coyoacan added the new meal to their regular menu for their customers who wanted lighter food options, and they named the new meal after Angela.
Pena thinks that Coyoacan’s other menu items, many of which are considered traditional Mexican dishes, taste just a little bit better than many of its competitors’ dishes. Coyoacan’s version of alambres – grilled steak, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms – doesn’t come served like a kebab. The ingredients are all chopped up and cooked together, and Coyocan’s comes with bacon and is covered in cheese.
According to Pena, Coyoacan’s shrimp diabla is unique from other restaurants’ in that Coyoacan’s comes served in a sour cream based sauce and is thick and rich, whereas other restaurants just cook it with tomatoes, jalapenos, and chipotle sauce.
Pena and his family are looking to expand their operations even farther, they are planning to open a third restaurant when the right opportunity presents itself. Their minds are set on St. Augustine, Florida, but they’re considering other options. The main two things they’re looking for are a good local economy and a good location.
“It’s really just a matter of locations that we like as far as doing something else,” Pena said. “We’re also looking into Thomasville (Georgia).”
Opening a new restaurant is notoriously risky. A lot of money goes in initially, and it can sometimes take years to start earning a profit. When asked about those risks, Pena brushed off any concerns.
“Well if you think about it, anything you do in life is risky,” Pena said. “You have to take chances.”
Health Life – July-August 2017
Managing Restaurants Runs in the Family
Written by: Anna Limoges
Photography by: Aaron Musgrove