John Vargas has been in the Cantina Laredo family for almost two decades. He began with the Dallas-based restaurant company when it had only four locations. In December 2003, it was looking to expand into a new market which brought Vargas to open its first Houston restaurant. The growing company selected the former site of Good Eats in Westchase District.
While Vargas and his partners were not thinking long-term, the restaurant’s reception dictated other plans. “Originally we wanted to operate it for four years, but after continued success we signed another five-year lease, and kept renewing every five years,” said Vargas. “The growth of Cantina Laredo started because of the people in Westchase District.” He credits Cantina Laredo’s appeal in Westchase directly to the chain’s expansion. “Westchase was the impetus to expand into seven other states with more than 40 restaurants now,” said Vargas.
District is perfect place for restaurant
Breakfast meetings are common in the District’s vibrant business community. Vargas saw this trend and began offering breakfast catering. “We never did breakfast but heard from the community that’s what they wanted,” said Vargas. “We figured it out and began serving breakfast eight years ago in the restaurant and catering lunch meetings. Not everyone wants to eat Mexican food every day, so we diversified our menu options for catering, offering Italian and home style.”
Tested to the brink, Vargas vows comeback
By 2019, Cantina Laredo had been long established as one of the District’s most popular eating spots and watering holes with its signature authentic Mexican dishes and bar drinks. Suddenly during last year’s pandemic Vargas faced permanent closure. Despite grueling setbacks, he resolved to keep its doors open. His priority was trying to keep dedicated staff employed. When he could not pay his team, he provided food. “I had managers, servers and cooks who were with me for 20-30 years,” said Vargas.
It had been six years since Vargas and investor partners took ownership of the restaurant. As COVID continued to crash the restaurant’s operations, partners suddenly departed, leaving Vargas alone to fight for survival. “We closed our doors for nine months,” said Vargas. “There was nothing we could do, and we tried everything – curbside service, deliveries.” Customers and the community inundated Vargas with phone calls pleading for him to reopen.
He came up with a plan to transition to a franchise owner after a six-week negotiation with the chain’s corporate office. He clocked 18- to 20-hour days to be able to reopen in December. “In my new role, I had to do everything by myself — from permits to purchasing new equipment to licensing,” said Vargas. In May, the Houston West Chamber of Commerce held a grand reopening ribbon cutting celebrating Vargas and the reopening of the restaurant. “Everything fell back in place with the support of a lot of people including my staff,” said Vargas. “If I must do this again, I can do it again. I have no limits.”
Coming back with a focus on menu strengths
Patrons have lots of dining options in Westchase, said Vargas. “There are many places to get a margarita but what makes ours unique is that we squeeze our lemons and limes fresh every day,” said Vargas. “You can taste that difference especially in our signature sauces. We prep and cook these daily.” He also points to featured menu items like fish of the day or bone-in ribeye as distinct offerings not found anywhere else. “We think different and create a nice atmosphere and a lot of people in Westchase like this,” said Vargas.