Every so often, a customer at one of Jose Sanchez’s three Mayan Mexican Restaurant locations in Lacey will approach him with a memory. “You probably don’t remember me,” they’ll begin, “but you used to babysit me when my mom was here having lunch.” The customers, now in their 20s or 30s, often have children of their own in tow. Such encounters may seem more likely at a school or community church, but these are no ordinary restaurants. Some of the customers have been dining there for decades and know their servers by name.
Sanchez strives for a welcoming culture that embodies his Mexican roots. That hospitable spirit has enabled him to expand his business over three decades and survive the pandemic without having to let a single staff member go. Many of his team have been with him from the beginning, a remarkable achievement in an industry with an average turnover rate of 74%.
“A lot of these people I hired when they were 15- or 16-year-old kids,” he says. “Now they’re 30 or 40. I have one 80-year-old man who still works for me. I know when a person needs help, even if it means taking on a liability. I think that’s why everyone stays such a long time.”
Sanchez began his career as a dishwasher, eventually working his way up to busser and chef. He credits one of his early employers with sending him to seminars to learn the business side of the industry. “I was lucky to work for someone who was a very good mentor,” he explains. “I learned how to hire and make management decisions.”
After seven years with that restaurant, he purchased his own in Seattle’s University District from Lucy Lopez, one of the city’s pioneers of Mexican cuisine. As fortune would have it, her brother-in-law was selling what became the first Mayan restaurant on Pacific Avenue in Lacey. Sanchez bought the building in 1996 and began with eight employees.
“That is how it started,” he says. “I was hungry, I was young, and I worked a lot of hours.” Within four years he had added a second location on Marvin Road and several years later, a third on Yelm Highway.
From the start, creating a family-style environment for his staff was a priority. Given that many of his employees are related, that wasn’t too difficult. “You hire one person and then you hire their cousin and their uncle,” he says. “One thing leads to another. I think people want security, no matter what they’re doing. It’s important to provide a very secure, comfortable place for them to work. Then there is no reason for them to go and look anywhere else.”
That environment naturally extends to customers. “There’s a strong parallel between how Jose treats and nurtures his staff and his aspirations for nurturing his clientele,” says Andy Cook, a restaurant consultant with Harbor Foodservice. “He treats them like they’re family, so they treat the people who come in like they’re family also.”
Sanchez agrees. “There is never a rush,” he explains. “If you bring your baby and she starts to cry, I can take her for you so you can enjoy a nice lunch. You are not my customer, you are my guest.”
Another factor in his success: the breadth of his industry knowledge. “One of the things that made him so successful was that he had so much prior knowledge and experience in every single position in the restaurant,” says Nick Sanchez, Jose’s son. “If the cook is sick or a bartender can’t make it, he can cover that position. He’s hands-on, and that gains the respect of every employee.” Nick recently graduated from college with a degree in hospitality management and will eventually take the reins once his father retires.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly rough on the restaurant industry, but as restrictions continue to ease, Sanchez sees reason for optimism. He’s looking forward to reconnecting with customers—or, as he would put it, guests—who haven’t been frequenting the restaurant for over a year.
“People are becoming more comfortable about coming back,” he says. “Once they see others coming to restaurants again, they’ll want to do the same. I’m excited about getting back to 100% capacity and to see the future of not only our restaurant but all the restaurants in the industry as a whole.”
Learn more by visiting the Mayan Mexican Restaurants website or calling 360.491.8244.
Mayan Mexican Restaurants
4520 Pacific Ave SE, Lacey
2120 Marvin Rd NE, Lacey
4820 Yelm Hwy, SE Lacey