When Sergio Avila, owner of Avila’s El Ranchito in Newport Beach, first walked by the property at 28th Street and Newport Boulevard in 1975, he could sense the potential for a restaurant.
“At 22 years old, I thought, ‘Why not?’” he said.
As Avila, part of the second generation of restaurateurs in the Avila family, prepares to celebrate the Mexican restaurant’s 40th anniversary in Newport Beach, he and his family reflected on the growth of the business and their humble beginnings.
To commemorate their four decades in the community, the three generations of the Avila family will let customers experience something from 1975 — that is, the groovy prices from that era — with a series of Throwback Thursday events beginning April 2. Every Thursday in April, the restaurant will offer lunch and dinner dishes from the original menu for prices from 40 years ago.
HISTORY OF THE CHAIN
In 1959, Avila’s parents, Salvador and Margarita, moved the family from Guanajuato, Mexico, to Huntington Park. With a loan from Salvador’s uncle, the family opened the first El Ranchito restaurant in Huntington Park in 1966.
Margarita, known as Mama Avila, created the menu’s traditional Mexican staples. The self-made Southern California food pioneers became successful by serving plates of chile verde, chingolingas and handmade corn tortillas.
Eventually, the Avilas would open 11 restaurant locations in Southern California, and nearly all 40 members of the family’s three generations would help operate the businesses.
Maribel, one of Avila’s three daughters, who started working alongside her father after she graduated from college in 2010, oversees the Newport Beach, Corona del Mar and Huntington Beach locations and manages a total of 120 employees.
“He is my mentor,” she said of her father. “He knows how to problem-solve and delegate responsibilities, because you can’t do it all.”
And grandpa Salvador, the 92-year-old patriarch of the family and the franchise, still makes unannounced visits to each location to taste the salsa to make sure its flavor is correct.
“The goal for the third generation is to help out with social media and make the public know more about us,” Avila said. “But they know the ropes, and they will continue and perfect the success.”
‘A LANDMARK’ FOR NEWPORTERS
When the family’s first restaurant opened in Huntington Park, the teenage Avila washed dishes with his grandfather in the restaurant’s kitchen. Eventually, his love of surfing drew him to Newport Beach, where his older brothers lived.
After graduating from high school, he moved to the peninsula and took hospitality courses at Orange Coast College. When he wasn’t in school or catching waves, he’d commute to Los Angeles to help the family-run restaurant.
He made a promise to himself during the long drives: When he opened his restaurant, he would ride his bike to work.
Avila was 22 when he founded El Ranchito in Newport Beach with the financial backing of his parents and siblings. His family did their best to spread the word about the new business.
“We were the social media back then,” he said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Avila, now 62, sat at a table with Marybell, his wife of 32 years, and 27-year-old daughter Maribel to look at old photographs of the Newport Beach restaurant’s infancy.
“I can’t believe you wore that,” Maribel said with a laugh as she pointed to a picture of her father styled in a flared-collar shirt and cuffed bell bottoms.
“That was the look,” he said.
The year was 1975. Avila had a vision to expand the family’s restaurant business in Orange County.
The corner property, the site of a fish market that was once a hub for the local fishing industry in Newport Beach’s Cannery Village, caught his eye. It was for sale.
According to a study by the Ohio State University, 80% of restaurants go under in five years. But Avila worked hard to win and maintain his clientele and secure his business’ place in the area.
The restaurant became popular among local surfers and tourists and eventually outgrew its original 40 seats. Adjustments were made over the years, and then in 1997, the business underwent a renovation that allowed it to seat 177 guests.
According to Gordy Grundy, president of the Newport Beach Historical Society, Avila’s El Ranchito Newport Beach is one of the oldest restaurants still in operation in the Cannery Village neighborhood.
“Given the long history of El Ranchito, the restaurant has been a landmark of finding romance, losing love, birthdays, celebrations and memorials for many Newporters,” Grundy said. “El Ranchito has been a constant to a changing world.”
Avila said he has witnessed that change over four decades as a business owner in Newport Beach.
The small factories that once operated near his restaurant, he said, have been replaced by cafes and coffee shops.
“It’s changed, but there’s still a uniqueness here,” he said.
DRINK FOR A CAUSE
Avila says his life hasn’t changed too much over the past 40 years.
On a typical day, he’ll surf at 38th Street with a few friends, come back to the Newport restaurant for a bite to eat and then head out to check on the surrounding restaurants.
But now, his ride is on a bike.
Neither has his passion for the restaurant business waned.
“If you enjoy what you do, you’ll have a love and feel good about yourself,” he said.
Avila said he and the family also know that restaurants need much more than Mama Avila’s classic recipes to survive.
“We don’t cut any corners,” he said. “We’re very hands-on. If I’m not here, one of the family members is here. We all work together.”
To commemorate the restaurant’s 40 years, the Avila family will also partner with a local charity to host Drink for a Cause all Year Long. Every month, starting March 1, the restaurant will feature a “Drink for a Cause” margarita, meaning that $1 per margarita sold will go to that charity.
The anniversary celebration, Avila said, aims to honor the restaurant’s roots and look forward to the next 40 years.
“My dream has come true,” he said.
“He won’t retire,” Maribel said. “He’ll be in here at age 90 tasting the food.”
AVILA’s EL RANCHITO
Where: 2800 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to midnight Tuesdays; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Information: (949) 675-6855 or avilaselranchito.com