La Verne Magazine
"The Latino Community in La Verne: Struggle, Progress
El Merendero and Los Jarritos:
An Old-Fashioned Recipe for Success
by Martha I. Fernandez
photography by Amy M. Boyle
Although it is the bread of hard work that Willie Lopez displays, it
is the restaurant business that brought him success. Along with his wife
Petra, Willie in 1974 opened his first restaurant "El Two Pennies"
in Los Angeles. Six months later, he inaugurated El Merendero No. 1 in La
Verne. In 1982, Willie branched out to Pomona opening El Merendero No. 2
and El Merendero Bakery.
It is a combination of Mexican taco stand meets '50s diner. The mint
green booths complement the mauve and mint checkered floor and contrast
the beer can modeled piñatas. Strings of garlic tied with satin ribbons
hang beside a Biblical pastel colored picture above the blaring juke box.
Yes, the decor of El Merendero No. 2 in Pomona is an odd combination.
But, for the Lopez brothers, Willie and Pedro, this is the winning combination
that has brought them success in the restaurant business and, most importantly,
in the United States.
Willie Lopez left his home town of Tepanco de Lopez in Puebla, Mexico
at the age of 16. He crossed the ominous border in 1951 to pick fruit in
"My family was very poor. I come from a family of 11 siblings,
and I am the fourth oldest," he says.
Throughout the 15 years that followed, Willie would travel to Arizona,
California, Tennessee and Texas, picking the cotton, grape, lemon, orange
and tomato crops along the way.
In 1959, Lopez returned to his hometown to marry Petra Rojas, his wife
of 37 years. The couple returned to the States, where Lopez continued to
work in the fruit industry.
Petra's family owned a restaurant in Puebla, and Willie's father owned
a meat market and small grocery store. Together, the couple combined the
knowledge they had gained from working in their family's businesses. In
1974, they established their first restaurant "El Two Pennies"
on Broadway in Los Angeles.
After six months, the couple sold the restaurant and purchased a location
in La Verne from a friend of Willie, and christened the establishment El
Merendero No. 1.
According to Willie, every Mexican town has a merendero. He describes
the term as a place where everything and everyone comes together no matter
what walk of life they are from.
"El merendero in Mexico is a place one can find inside any town.
The cacique [owner] of the town puts something like a shopping center in
the center that has a small grocery store, a drug store, a bar and a restaurant
where the rich, professional and farm workers all come to eat," he
explains. "The whole world, from the politician to the most humble
person, comes together here.
"Although my business was so small and humble, it didn't matter
because people of all classes would come, and they still keep coming,"
Willie shares. "They never rejected [the restaurant], even though it
is so humble."
Proud of his business endeavors, Willie immediately recalls the date
he opened the doors of his restaurant in La Verne. The date is a memorable
one for the family. It is the day that the first of many El Merendero restaurants
would be created. But the success that the family has today was not in sight
in the beginning.
"At first, we didn't think we were going to be successful because
it took six months to start the business," he confesses. "We opened
April 5, 1975, but not until the fair in Pomona came in September until
the fourth or fifth of October, did the people see the place and start to
come. "When the fair wasn't here, we made no business. We sold very
little, almost nothing."
Today, however, El Merendero no longer has this problem. The restaurant
has its valued regular customers and a famous reputation for authentic Mexican
food. The food, Willie says, is the main reason for the family's success.
"All our recipes are original from us, from our customs," says
He opened and sold various locations of his restaurant throughout the
Pomona Valley and had establishments in Fontana and Huntington Park. However,
with time, he shut down the other locations and kept the restaurants at
1910 Fairplex Dr. and 301 Garey Ave. open for business. Willie also established
the El Merendero Bakery adjacent to El Merendero No. 2 in Pomona in 1982.
Here, he has his main office adorned with the Pomona Valley Small Business
Recognition Award for "Outstanding Small Business of the Year in 1994."
"We have seven recognitions," Willie boasts. "It means
a lot to us, these certificates they give us. We feel a lot of pride that
they gave us recognition."
His businesses in Pomona are the ones that Willie spends most of his
time at now. When not checking on them, Willie is home in La Verne with
his three children or enjoying his ranch in Rubidoux, Calif. "There,
I feel very happy. I have my animals, and that life makes me content,"
For younger brother Pedro, most of his time is spent running his own
two restaurants in Pomona, where he works 10 to 16 hours daily. Asked whether
his role at his restaurants was solely as a supervisor, Pedro answers, "I
work like any peon. I come, and I will do everything, inclusive of cleaning
the bathrooms or sweeping the floors or washing the plates. I will do everything."
Pedro Lopez followed in his older brother's footsteps by opening his
own restaurant, Los Jarritos I, in 1983. Three years later, Pedro opened
Los Jarritos II. Both restaurants are located in Pomona. However, his business
endeavors are not what Pedro values most. After immigrating to the United
States from Puebla, Mexico, he enrolled in night school to learn English
and take high school courses. He graduated second in his class from Roosevelt
High School in Los Angeles.
Taking the risks of starting a new business seems to run in the genes
of the Lopez family. It is a whole family affair when the Lopez family opens
a new restaurant. According to Pedro, the majority of employees for both
businesses are siblings, nieces and nephews.
He started out as one of those relatives who helped Willie with his
first business. In 1983, Pedro followed his older brother's footsteps and
opened Los Jarritos I at 246 Towne Ave. Three years later, he inaugurated
Los Jarritos II at 3191 Garey Ave.
Like his brother, Pedro also credits the food for his success. "We
always ate well in our home, and what we ate we wanted our customers to
eat. It is of great interest to us that things be well done, well done always,"
Pedro says that the most popular entrees at his restaurants are enchiladas
and chile rellenos. Besides the food he also believes the atmosphere of
the restaurant is essential to his success.
"It is a comfortable environment where the people come and feel
comfortable. They ask for what they need, and they stay as long as they
want; there is no hurry. If they want more to eat, we'll give them more.
And then, they can go home content."
Pedro hopes to open another restaurant in the near future. He is looking
at the cities of Claremont, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Victorville for
a future establishment.
Pedro left Mexico as a 28 year old in 1969. He joined his older brother
Willie, working in watermelon warehouses in Los Angeles. As time passed,
Pedro also worked in a clothing store and a candy factory. In 1975, he moved
to the Pomona Valley with his brother to work at El Merendero No. 1.
Despite the long work days, the majority of Pedro's toil was at night.
It was during the late hours that Pedro says he accomplished the task of
which he is most proud. He attended English as a Second Language (ESL) classes
at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. After a year of ESL classes, Pedro
enrolled in preparatory courses for the General Equivalence Diploma (GED)
"The language was very important to me, and I liked English. It
was my great illusion to learn English." Pedro graduated second in
his class at Roosevelt High with a B+ grade point average.
"Jobs are always there-if you do them well or if you do them badly,"
he says. "But an education is the wealth. It is the weapon with which
one can defend oneself throughout life."
However, learning English was not the only dream Pedro had. "My
dream that I had when I was in México to buy a new truck and have
a business has become a reality," he says. "My other dream was
to marry a good woman, and that has also become a reality."
Marrying a good woman is the dream that took the longest to be realized.
In 1988, Pedro married his wife, Socorro, whom he lives with in Pomona with
their three children.
"I am happy, but I know that I have many more challenges,"
he says. "The world needs a lot of work. There is a lot to fix. You
For the Lopez family, their dreams are rooted in México and realized
in the United States. Some might say that is what the American dream is
Interviews were done in Spanish and translated by the writer for
Back to Main Page