San Jose and Panchoâ€™s â€“ Fabulous and Fun
Greg Leon is a people person who doesn’t mind the 12-hour days needed to get it all done.
By CECILE S. HOLMES Photos by Sally Taylor
Way back in the 1980s when Greg Leon began experimenting in the kitchen, necessity proved the mother of invention.
His parents ran a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta. Leon bussed tables, washed dishes, and did other odd jobs as did his nine siblings. Then his father’s cook quit. Leon was only 12, maybe 13. So he started cooking because someone had to. “We did everything, my brothers and sisters and me. We made chips, waited tables.”
His father really wanted to live in a smaller place so eventually the family moved to Columbia. Today Leon’s parents divide their time between Mexico and the United States. All of his siblings remain in the restaurant business. Nearly all were lured in by working in their parents’ restaurant.
Leon owns six San Jose’s and two Pancho’s restaurants in Columbia, Lexington, Orangeburg and Newberry. He loves his work, often clocking 12-hour days. “The biggest thing with this is staying with it,” he says late one summer morning at the Pancho’s on Sunset Boulevard in Lexington. The San Jose brand is one he shares with siblings.
But Pancho’s is his own, named after his first born, Francisco, now 24 years-old. In Mexico, Leon says, “Pancho” is a nickname for Francisco. When he and his wife first started out, Francisco, then a baby, slept in a hammock in the eatery’s back room because the couple could not afford a babysitter and both worked fulltime in the restaurant.
“You’ve got to be married to it,” Leon says after 30 years in the restaurant business. “You cannot walk away. You have to be there. Like right now, my wife and children are on vacation in Mexico, but I cannot go right now. I will probably go join them later and stay for five days.”
Dedication and Commitment
Glancing around Pancho’s where waitresses are readying tables for the lunch rush, Leon muses for a moment when asked what advice he would give a would-be restaurateur. “First of all, you need dedication and willingness to work 80 hours a week,” he says. “And they (restaurant owners) have to be people-people. They have to like dealing with the public.
“That’s the toughest part, dealing with the public. You have to have the stomach for it. Many customers are wonderful. But with some you have to bite your tongue. It’s not that the customer will spend $20; it’s how many people that customer knows.”
Say a San Jose customer brings his wife and children in for a meal. If his experience is good, he’ll tell 20 people about it, Leon says. But if the experience is bad, who knows how many customers will be scared away? “It’s not how much money you’re going to make off of him, it’s how many customers he can run off.”
Leon learned the value of connections and good recommendations early. His parents came to the United States from the town of San Jose de la Paz in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Leon was born in the U.S. When his parents started out, they faced a daunting task: attracting diners in a region where many avoided Mexican food.
“We just couldn’t get people to eat the food,” he recalls. “In the South, people were used to country cooking. They were not willing even to experiment and taste it. We’d ask, ‘Do you like Mexican food?’ They’d say, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ So we would say, ‘Have you ever had it?’ And they’d say, ‘No, but I don’t like it.’ ”
Such reservations among potential customers meant business could be slow and the cash flow even slower. “We’d open the doors at 9am in the morning and close at 10pm at night and we’d only do $50.”
Authentic and Flavorful
When he opened his own place, Leon’s response was to work harder than ever – and to keep experimenting in the kitchen. He and his wife would work all day in the restaurant, closing only from 2 to 5pm afternoons. Leon took his marching orders from his background and experience.
There are lots of different cuisines in Mexico, he says. “It’s the same as it is here: the South and the North. We have different foods in the North from the South. We’re from lower South Central Mexico.”
All of his heritage influenced Leon in the kitchen. His menus – the same for San Jose restaurants and for Pancho’s establishments – are the same. They weave a colorful pattern of Mexican cuisines and culture. Each restaurant features hand-painted wall murals done by an artist who lives in Hendersonville, NC. You’ll see enticing senors and senioritas, colorful birds and landscapes and other picturesque motifs. The food choices are enormous.
Appetizers range from bean and beef nachos to guacamole salad to chile poppers. Meat lovers can be satisfied by cheese steak burritos, burritos rellenos – burritos with picadillo, shredded pork and nacho cheese and topped with guacamole or enchilladas supremos with a mix of chicken, bean and beef enchiladas. There are special tacos with tongue, grilled steak, pork and other choices.
Vegetarian entrees star spinach burritos; broccoli, bell pepper, mushroom and cauliflower fajitas, and the familiar bean and cheese burritos and enchilladas.
Seafood lovers can enjoy grilled shrimp salads, fish tacos, stuffed flounder or even filete de pescado, a fried fish fillet served with rice, salad and tartar sauce. If you’re in a hurry, lunch specials priced from $5.50 to $7.50 are available. So are a mix of wine beer and spirits, including the requisite margaritas.
Born to Experiment
Leon recommends the chile poblano, the fajitas and the cheesesteak burrito. “I made that dish up,” he says of the latter.
“When we first came up with the menu, I ate it every day. When I cooked, I just started pulling from here and there and came up with stuff. Same thing with the salsas. We have the tomatillo, the spicy salsa, a ranchero salsa. The spicy is not always popular. It’s an acquired taste, but I love it.”
Leon grins as he talks about “spare time.” At age 48, he admits he still doesn’t have much extra time and he likes it that way. When he is free, he raises Andalusian and Friesen horses on his 30-plus acre farm in Lexington. He and his wife, Raquel, usually dine out a couple of times a week to ensure quality time together. His six children – Francisco, 24; Greg Jr., 22, Adrian, 20, Jessica, 16, Alex, 13 and Veronica, 7 – pursue varied interests. Some are in school or college. One works with an air conditioning company, but also devotes time to the restaurants.
Keeping the businesses running isn’t easy or simple. “It just doesn’t run itself,” he says. “There really isn’t bad food or bad service. Management is the biggest issue. What people who don’t work in restaurants do not know is that it’s the toughest business you can imagine.”
Clad in a comfortable, open-neck shirt and slacks, Leon relaxes as he talks about his life and his businesses. Occasionally he fingers the medallion round his neck. It depicts the “la Virgen da Guadalupe,” the patron saint of Mexico who is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a poor peasant, centuries ago.
Leon loves to visit Mexico, but doesn’t want to move there. He likes the Midlands, especially Lexington County. “I’m hoping to grow old here,” he says. “I’ve got six kids and five of them already help in the restaurant. Maybe one day they will want to be in the business. I cannot promise you that, but that’s my goal.”
San Jose Mexican Restaurant
498 Piney Grove Road
801 Sparkleberry Lane
4710 Augusta Road
1475 Old Orangeburg Road
1034 Chesnut St.
2041 Wilson Road
Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant
5400 Forest Drive
5141 Sunset Blvd.