BAXTER -- Working as a dishwasher, busing and waiting on tables and cooking, Pedro Unzueta dreamed of one day owning his own restaurant.

His first venture in Florida was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. After looking for a new place to start, 11 years ago, he opened El Tequila Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Baxter in the FitQuest building on Audubon Way. El Tequila converted what was a pizza restaurant into Unzueta’s vision to focus on creativity in the kitchen for his own menu and strong customer service. The business grew by word of mouth. And three years ago, Unzueta opened a second restaurant on Washington Street in Brainerd -- Burritos California.

Friday, Nov. 8, Unzueta finalized a deal for his biggest move yet, moving him from a renter to a building owner and breathing new life into the vacated restaurant that once was Olive Garden.

By the first week of December, El Tequila is expected to open in its new location. El Tequila will grow from its current capacity of 174 seats to 247.

Thursday after the closing on the purchase of the former Olive Garden building, Unzueta said it still felt surreal and he still didn’t believe it. He wanted to sleep on it and wake Friday to make sure it was more than a dream alone. By Friday morning, the final signatures with the seller sealed the deal.

“It is a big move,” Unzueta said.

El Tequila opened in the FitQuest building in 2008 and owner Pedro Unzueta said the restaurant has grown every year largely from word of mouth. The restaurant is now moving into larger space as Unzueta purchased the former Olive Garden building in Baxter. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch
El Tequila opened in the FitQuest building in 2008 and owner Pedro Unzueta said the restaurant has grown every year largely from word of mouth. The restaurant is now moving into larger space as Unzueta purchased the former Olive Garden building in Baxter. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Unzueta came to Minnesota after having a small restaurant in Pensacola, Florida. The competition for Mexican eateries there was crowded with a multitude of offerings. Unzueta said he decided to look for opportunities where he could move. With a sister-in-law in Minneapolis, Unzueta, 44, said they decided to give Minnesota a try. He worked as a waiter and manager in Hutchinson. On his day off, he looked for a small town to open his own restaurant. With a former partner, they found the former Dave’s Pizza restaurant space in the FitQuest building. The space allowed him to become established and grow. Along the way, Unzueta took on sole ownership of the restaurant.

“Every year is better and better,” Unzueta said of business growth.

The challenge was visibility from the highway and pulling in the traveling public who may not realize the restaurant was there as they drove by. Challenged visibility is not a concern with the prominently positioned Olive Garden building near the shopping nexus of Walmart and Costco, along with a host of other retail outlets just off Highway 371. Other benefits include a huge kitchen, efficient workflow setup, and bar seating that is separated from the main dining area.

Unzueta said his family is excited about the move.

“It’s a great opportunity to move over there for everybody -- for me, my customers, the community, more jobs,” he said. El Tequila employs about 17 now, part time and full time. Unzueta said he is looking to hire another 10 people in the new location. With expectations a new, much more visible location will bring in more people, Unzueta said he knows the importance of a good first impression. He said he has seen other restaurants fail to have staff ready to meet the demand that comes with an opening. His plans are to have people in place to meet the demand.

“I want to make my customers happy,” Unzueta said.

With an expansive menu, Unzueta also looks to be creative and add dishes, even creating menu items from customer suggestions after they’ve tried a dish and wondered if he could recreate it. The successes are added to the menu.

Unzueta pointed to a strength of having two restaurants here. Burritos California, he said, does a good business and has a busier lunch than El Tequila had and it was the opposite for the dinner crowd, meaning he could mobilize staff from either place to fill in where the need was greatest. Unzueta said the goal with Burritos California was to provide another eating option with a focus on healthy food that is prepared quickly and gives customers a large value for their cost. The tortillas the burritos are built upon have grown from 10-inch rounds to 13 inches.

Unzueta has already started working on the menu for El Tequila’s move and expects it will be ready by the last week of November. He plans to close the location at FitQuest the week of Thanksgiving and move to the new spot.

“I think we have plenty of time,” he said. “It’s three more weeks for the move.”

Unzueta said the Olive Garden building is in great condition and is just missing the 88 chairs it once had.

“That is very exciting and the more exciting thing is today is the closing day and today is my wife’s birthday and this is the best present I am going to give her,” Unzueta said of Anai, his wife of 17 years. Together they have five children. It’s a lovely family, he said.

El Tequila is expected to close Nov. 25 in the FitQuest Building on Audubon Way to prepare for the move. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch
El Tequila is expected to close Nov. 25 in the FitQuest Building on Audubon Way to prepare for the move. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Running a restaurant can be a stressful enterprise with low margins. Unzueta said it’s a business he has a passion for and a strong belief in the importance of having people who enjoy their work and make the customer experience a good one.

“I love my job, I want to stay here for long time,” he said. Unzueta said the community here has been a good one, with good schools and opportunities. He isn’t concerned about the added competition of additional Mexican restaurants, including Chipotle, which is expected to open Nov. 19.

“The competition makes you better and this is good for the customers,” Unzueta said.

Brandi Breitbach and Brad Wadsten, both from Edina Realty, a Berkshire Hathaway affiliate, represented Unzueta in the site selection and purchase of the 7,500-square-foot property for $1.9 million. Completing the sale was a community effort, Wadsten said, adding for him this is a story of a small entrepreneur who worked hard and was helped by the support of the community. It was a cooperative effort, Wadsten said, noting the help of the listing broker Dick Grones and his son Harrison of Cambridge Commercial Realty to get the seller in Orlando, Florida, to embrace the deal.

“It’s important to recognize that it was a collection of area businesses and organizations that all came together to help make this transaction happen,” Wadsten said in a news release. In addition to Edina Realty’s involvement, Wadsten and Breitbach added BlackRidgeBANK provided Small Business Administration-backed financing provided through Minnesota Business Finance Corporation. Additionally, Central Lakes College’s Small Business Development Center assisted with business planning and Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. and Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation supported the purchase with economic development funding.

Sitting in a booth at El Tequila Thursday in the late afternoon sunlight, Unzueta was joined by family to celebrate the closing.

“I want them to know he was a dishwasher, that’s what I want people to know -- that he started from the bottom. One year in the back washing dishes and look what today came in -- this great building. Everyone is so proud of him,” his niece Mayra Galvan said. “And he’s teaching all those values to his children, which is great.”

“In this country if you work hard,” Unzueta said, you can become whatever you want. ”Do the right thing, you are going to be whatever you want, where you want. Dreams come true.”