Teodosio Estrada grew up in Mexico with barely enough food to eat, but now he feeds hundreds of people each day at his Mi Rancho Mexican restaurants.
The chain's ninth restaurant is opening in downtown Augusta in April.
Along with co-owner Melissa Ruiz, Estrada built the restaurants with money he saved while working in the food business, starting with his job washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant in Sumter, S.C. Unable to get a loan to fund his dream, he saved for eight years until he had enough to open his first Mi Rancho in Clearwater in 1996.
He is sentimental about that first restaurant.
"To me, this is Mi Rancho. This is home," Estrada said. "This is my baby right here. If something happens to me, I want my babies to keep it."
Mi Rancho means "my ranch" in Spanish, a reminder of the small ranch on which Estrada grew up.
Fourteen years after opening his first restaurant, his ''ranch'' has spread to Augusta, Martinez, Evans, Aiken, Barnwell and Batesburg-Leesville, with 100 employees spread among the restaurants.
The menu has changed over the years to make it more than Mexican food. There are vegetarian dinners, soups, salads, steaks and seafood. To cater to everyone, the restaurant even serves hamburgers and chicken fingers. Ruiz, who is Estrada's ex-wife, makes suggestions of foods that Americans will eat.
Estrada said he never forgets his roots. His parents, who live in the Mexican state of Guerrero, are proud of him and his siblings, who also work at the restaurants.
"The tough times are what really makes a good person," Estrada said. "The bad days really get you more than the good days. Don't forget where you came from. That's when the trouble comes. You'll start acting different."
Estrada and Ruiz usually work seven days a week, said his mother-in-law, Nancy Outley.
Outley remembers the early days of sacrifice. Estrada met her daughter while working as a cook at a Mexican restaurant where Ruiz was a waitress. They married and shared a vision for opening a restaurant. They started with a handful of employees, including one of Estrada's brothers.
"They all lived together for a while," Outley said. "Nobody made any paychecks. Everything they made was put back in the business. It was so bad sometimes they had to walk back and forth to the restaurant to work. There was no gas money.
"It was really tough getting going. Most of this I didn't know until years later. They never complained. They toughed it out."
Outley said most of their customers are regulars.
"They're here several times a week," she said. "Most of these customers, they're going to tell you that Teo is just as much of a friend as he is the owner of the business."
Today, Estrada runs the restaurants while Ruiz handles the bookkeeping.
"There's so much emotion in it," Outley said. "To see two young people be so successful, it just shows that hard work and dedication are the combination for a successful business. They both still work just as hard now as they did when they started,."
Justin Craven, of Beech Island, has eaten at Mi Rancho in Clearwater for seven years. He shows up at least once or twice a week, for lunch with his friends, or for Friday night karaoke about every other week.
He said he keeps coming back because of the "friendly staff and great food." His favorite dish is the Burrito Mi Rancho, a chicken burrito topped with cheese dip, shrimp and sauce.
"They come to talk to you like you're a friend," Craven said. "They always make sure your drinks are full and get your food out very quick."
His favorite waiter is Efrain Lopez, whom he calls "one of the best waiters in Aiken County." He also is fond of Estrada, who is always refilling drinks and talking with customers.
"He's got a good group of people that work for him," Craven said. "Just keep doing what they're doing. They're doing a good job. I've never had a bad experience here. It's always been good, and we come here a lot."
Survival of the fittest
Estrada grew up as the eldest of five siblings in the 1960s in the southern state of Guerrero near the Pacific Ocean. Food and money were scarce. His father, Procoro Estrada, worked hard farming and building houses, but he didn't earn enough to support his family. His mother, Rafaela Arreola, stayed at home.
"We grew up starving, pretty much. We didn't even have enough food to eat," Estrada said.
He worked as much as he could to help his parents make ends meet. Everyone in their small ranch area was poor. People were simply trying to survive. There was no running water or electricity, he said.
During the rainy season, his father grew corn that was used to make tortillas to feed the family. Many people in their area grew corn as a means of survival. The corn was stored for the year, and women cooked the corn and processed it into tortillas at home.
"It's a lot of work, but that's how we did it," Estrada said.
He and his siblings walked to school every day. His high school was 30 to 45 minutes away. He didn't like school and preferred to work to help his family, but his mother was determined to make sure all of her children graduated from high school.
Neither of his parents received a day of formal education because they never had the opportunity.
"Back then, they didn't really believe school was important. They were working to bring something to the table," Estrada said about his parents' generation. "My mother pushed me. She made everybody finish high school."
After high school, Estrada decided that he needed to leave Mexico to make a better life for himself. He journeyed alone to San Diego, where a cousin lived. He later moved to Atlanta and then Augusta.
"You've got to do what you've got to do to make a living. That was the only way I could see to make a better living. Over there, there was nothing," Estrada said about Mexico. "And I'm still not quitting. I keep going every day."
After he had moved to the South, Estrada's first job was washing dishes at the Mexican restaurant in Sumter. When that restaurant closed, he took a job at Pablo's Mexican Restaurant in Beaufort, S.C., as a cook.
He was later transferred to the Augusta restaurant.
"That's how I started learning about the business, starting with the bottom on up," Estrada said.
He took English classes in school, but he mastered the language by working with people.
"That's what I enjoy most: I like to meet different people," Estrada said.
Starting with his first job, Estrada began saving money to fund his dream: to own his own restaurant.
"I saw everybody around that was doing well, and I knew I could do it," he said.
He wasn't able to qualify for a bank loan, so he had to save his money for eight years until he finally had enough to get started.
It was at the restaurant in Beaufort that he met Ruiz. She was a waitress, and he was a cook. They made a good team when they started their own restaurant.
"I didn't know anything on the front (of the restaurant) and she didn't know anything in the back," Estrada said.
The early years were humbling. They had five employees who lived with the couple and shared a car with them.
They were able to survive by sharing bills, he said. Estrada cooked at the restaurant for the first year.
"The first six months was hell," he said. "We were doing only like $100 a day. Working seven days a week and no business, it was tough. I couldn't pay myself."
A lot of times, he couldn't pay the staff, either.
At the end of the first year, they finally started seeing progress. They worked nonstop for two years, closing only for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
"We opened with so little money that all we had in here was junk. We had to replace it. Every month, we had something broken," he said.
Three years later, they were able to open a Mi Rancho on Columbia Road in Martinez.
Starting with their first restaurant, they hired an accountant and an attorney to assist them. In another two years, they opened a restaurant on West Richland Avenue in Aiken.
"That's when we really started to do well. We were doing sales that I'd never seen before," Estrada said.
With that success, they opened restaurants about every two years. When they opened No. 6, Estrada said, he no longer had difficulty obtaining a bank loan.
During this time, Estrada married his current wife, Judith, who is from his home town of Tlalchapa. They have been married for eight years.
There was plenty of competition around, but Estrada believes they set themselves apart because they treated their customers like friends.
He said that building these relationships helped them to build the business.
"If you go to a big restaurant, big chains, what you see is real formal. We try to be more personal, create a friendship," Estrada said.
Initially, they had to work to break the ice with people in Clearwater, he said, but "now they're like family."
Over the years, he was able to bring his brothers into the business, along with other people in the community.
His ninth restaurant will be Mi Rancho's first franchise. They have closed their restaurant in St. George, S.C., and are moving it to downtown Augusta.
"The last one, we're trying to help some people out. That's what we want to do now. Help somebody, give them an opportunity to be owners, too," Estrada said.
Estrada is setting the bar high for Mi Rancho.
"My goal is to see Mi Rancho get better than what it is now. I want it to look better every day and give the most we can give to our customers," Estrada said.
He wants consistency across the Mi Rancho brand, particularly in food and service.
"It's not easy. It's going to take me years to get it the way I want it to be," he said.
The businessman plans to open more franchise locations.
"We're not stopping here. We're probably going to try to open one a year," Estrada said. "We've got a lot of good employees that deserve the opportunity to be on their own, to be more than just a waiter or just a cook. They need the opportunity.
''Nobody really gave me the opportunity. I just went and got it. I help a lot of people, and I feel good about it."
Teodosio Estrada said that he is grateful for his customers' support over the years.
"We can tell they're supporting us because Mi Rancho is growing," he said. "They've given us good support over the years. We want to make it better for them."