As a boy, Marco Martinez liked to visit his grandfather’s farm outside of Mexico City. He would walk among the poblano peppers, broccoli and tomatoes, and he would dream.
Those dreams included the meals that were prepared on the farm. “I was a kid who was raised with the mentality of eating fresh with farm-raised animals and all that kind of stuff,” he told Global Atlanta.
While his family lived in the city because his Dad was a government official, his exposure to farm life made studying to be a veterinarian a logical choice. But his dreams interfered. He didn’t really want to be a veterinarian. Owning a restaurant that served farm-fresh food he thought would be much more fun.
By the time of the late 1980s, his father had risen in Mexico’s foreign service to the point that he was appointed to the embassy in Washington as an agricultural officer.
His dad was working with U.S. and Canadian agricultural officials laying the groundwork for the NAFTA. Meanwhile, Marco having graduated from university, was thinking about his own career.
“In my family, we were always foodies; we love food, so we always thought about having our business either in Mexico or in the U.S.,” he said.
With the encouragement and prodding of his dad, he started to consider opening a restaurant seriously. “Now is the time, if you are really serious about opening a food business,” his dad told him.
His father also encouraged him to seek out a fast-growing city in the U.S. The choices boiled down to Seattle, Denver and Atlanta.
Atlanta was particularly interesting because it recently had been selected to be the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics and his sister Lucero was a student of graphic design at the Art Institute of Atlanta.
Atlanta also was the nearest of these cities to Washington and his family, so it was decided Atlanta would be their destination. In 1995, Atlanta was busily preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games with a lot of the construction work being done by Mexicans.
What was surprising, was even though there were many Mexicans working in Atlanta, there weren’t any 100 percent authentic Mexican restaurants.
The first thing they looked into was a name. They finally settled on Zocalo, referring to town squares throughout Mexico where people gather to socialize and have fun. “When we opened, my brothers, my parents and I, we all agreed that it would be a great name,” he recalled.
Next they had to decide what to serve. At the time the only Mexican restaurants in town were of the Tex-Mex variety.
“Our trend is more like homemade Mexican food,” he said. “What inspired us to open it with this kind of menu is that when we moved to the states we were like, ‘OK, if we’re going to open a business, we want to duplicate exactly what we had at my grandmother’s house or in my family’s house.’”
“Let me tell you, we were the only ones and I think we inspired this new trend of Mexican food,” he added.
The food was great, but that didn’t mean there weren’t problems. “At the beginning in 1995, we had lots of problems with people, with customers, because they didn’t know what we were serving,” he said. “So we introduced tacos and tortas, and people were like, ‘Are you crazy. this is not what you have in a Mexican restaurant.’”
“But little by little, we started having all these customers that really appreciated our food,” he added. “For example, in the first 14 years of Zocalo being open, we didn’t serve chips and salsa. So we had lots of angry customers, as soon as they didn’t have chips and salsa for an appetizer they left. But at the same time we would recommend other good appetizers. And, as I said before, some of those customers stayed and others left.”
Looking back to those early days of the business, it’s easy for him to contemplate how Atlanta has changed.
“Right now I think that there are a lot of people that are in love with Mexican culture,” he said. “When we got here in 1995, the population in Atlanta was like 1.7 million and now I understand that it’s almost 7 million. Back then you would see a bus station with one Mexican person, maybe one Latin person, but it would be strange. Now every restaurant, hotel, landscaping, construction company has Mexicans.”
“I would say not only the Mexican population but also the Latino population is growing a lot, very fast. Native Georgia and native Atlanta people have been very welcoming with these new cultures coming into the city. I see Indians, I see Muslims, if you go to Buford highway right outside of I-285, you see huge communities of Vietnamese, Korean.”
As the city’s population has changed and become more cosmopolitan in terms of its appreciation of Zocalo’s menu, so has the area where they first opened the restaurant at the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue.
When the restaurant first opened, he recalled, “There was nothing. Little by little we started creating a customer base, and it was like the second year when our landlord was asking for $600,000 for the whole corner. Right now it’s worth $18 million.”
“Four years after we started Zocalo’s there was a coffee shop nearby, the fifth year we got a book store, the sixth year there was another restaurant and that’s how this particular area has been growing. Right now it’s one of the hottest spots in town.”
Zocalo, he readily admitted, has been “a cash cow” for 21 years. But its success prompted them to try opening a fine dining restaurant in 1998 in Buckhead, a decision which they came to regret.
“I think that was bad timing because people were not ready, especially people from the South. The second reason was that at that time there was a very high crime rate in Buckhead and the third reason because of 9/11 we were hurt pretty bad.”
They closed the Buckhead restaurant two and a half years after opening it. That experience, although a bad one, has enabled Mr. Martinez to pass down some business advice to his children and other young people.
“First of all, if I knew I was going to be in the restaurant business, I would have studied something related to food and hospitality, instead of taking veterinarian courses.
“Most definitely, I would study doing business in the states, because when we started Zocalo, we knew about business, but we came from a different country so business, hospitality and customer care was totally different.
“My advice would be to do good research about where to open a business and secondly, if they are not into business, they should get a business partner. Demographics is very important and, I would say, location also is very important.”
Also important, he added, is to love the food. His favorites at Zocalo are: poblano soup and chile relleno, (“I could live all my life eating those.”), pork carnitas and shrimp tacos (“Are always a good snack.”), and a table side of guacamole, (Of course, is one of our customers’ favorites.”).
Julia Plott, a recent graduate from the Atlanta International School, conducted the interview with Mr. Martinez.