The American Dream, one burrito at a time

October 07, 2016 | GET MORE : Entrepreneurship

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"Only in the United States can you open eight Mexican restaurants, and an Irish pub."

Sam Leon has a unique take on the power of possible.

"Only in the United States can you open eight Mexican restaurants... and an Irish pub," he said.

Sam Leon, his eight siblings, their Mexican immigrant parents and about 560 employees this Cinco de Mayo celebrated the 20th anniversary of their growing Minnesota chain of Mexican restaurants and a three-year-old Irish pub. 

The Leon family's business story reinforces the notion that success is possible with a dream, hard work and continued investment.

Moving to Minnesota

Sam Leon's parents, Jesus and Maria, immigrated 43 years ago to southern California from Jalisco, Mexico.

In the 1990s, their oldest son Jose moved to Atlanta to work for a relative who owned a Mexican restaurant there – it was the first tangible step the Leon family took to realizing its dream of opening a restaurant (When you raise nine kids, the kitchen at home functions like a restaurant, after all.)

Jose searched the country for a place that didn’t have a lot of Mexican restaurants already, eventually finding his way to Coon Rapids, Minn. (a suburb about 20 miles north of St. Paul) in 1996.

"My parents used all of their life savings and Jose used a big chunk of his money to open up a tiny little restaurant in a former pizza place," Sam said. "It was about 3,200 square feet. That was the beginning of our restaurants."

A family affair

Twenty years later, the restaurant chain involves the whole Leon family. Jose is CEO and Sam, who followed his parents and brother north to work in the first restaurant, is chief operating officer and family spokesman.

Their siblings, Maria, Carlos, Alex, Veronica, Martin, Jesse and Lupita, and some of their children are involved in the business. Family members serve in a wide range of roles ranging from construction and menu design to cooking, waiting and bartending.

Parents Jesus and Maria are still involved, helping with maintenance and housekeeping.

Investing in growth

The business gradually grew, adding new stores in neighboring suburbs every few years.

The family business has been a customer of U.S. Bank's Oak Ridge branch in Stillwater, Minn. since 2005.

Employees at the office get excited when the Leon family shows up and shares plans to open another new restaurant and chat about the community, said Emily Schwenker, assistant vice president and branch manager.

"I remember one time Sam walked in our branch with a house-shaped sign to put out front in support of a United Way campaign," Schwenker said. "He wanted all of his partners to come together in giving back. It made me realize just how committed he is to our community."

Sam and two of his brothers, Carlos and Jose, all live in Stillwater, a small resort town on the Wisconsin and Minnesota border. In 2013, they had the idea to buy a historic building downtown Stillwater that was on the market. The trouble was, they already owned an Acapulco restaurant nearby.

"We took a step back and thought about what the space could become," Sam said. In a twist, they landed on an Irish pub, Pub 112, merging Irish and Latin cuisine.

The menu has unique fusion items such as tacos made with corned beef, and chili peppers added to traditional Irish dishes. The food was developed by Head Chef Bernice Reyes, a member of the family who studied at Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Pub 112 has been a hit, especially on the weekends when Stillwater tends to attract a lot of tourists, Sam said.

The entire Acapulco enterprise generates between $10 million and $15 million in annual sales, Leon said. Had it been ranked this year by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, it would be in the top 20 largest minority-owned companies in the Twin Cities. 

Next year, Acapulco will begin renovations at some of its older restaurants. Sam also is in early stages of planning a fast-casual Mexican restaurant concept that could open in 2018.

Giving back

The White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce named Sam its 2016 Business Person of the Year to celebrate his company's contributions to the community.

"[Sam Leon] is absolutely the most awesome, incredible business leader that I have ever met," said Tom Snell, executive director of the Chamber when presenting the award in August.

The Leons' restaurants have hosted fundraisers for causes ranging from the United Way (raising nearly $100,000 for the organization over the years) and The Special Olympics to local schools and a Mexican orphanage. 

Sam summed up his family’s perspective on its success in a Stillwater Gazette story written when Pub 112 opened.

"In this industry we live well, but we’re not rich by any means because we dump 100 percent of our proceeds into the company," he said. "What we have is our empire, family and employees who have become an extension of that family."

Sam Black is a member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.