Nacho Average Business Owner: The Story of Raul Cantu
It’s hard to imagine Raul Cantu without a smile on his face. With Nacho Mama‘s Carytown open for nearly 20 years, and the opening of a second location under his belt, he’s got plenty of reasons to be happy. But it wasn’t always salsa and success for this proud, openly gay RVA small business owner.
Born in Boynton Beach, FL, Raul spent most of his early days moving around the country with his family. They were migrant workers, following the brutal and unglamorous seasonal work available to Mexican-Americans at the time – they even had a stint picking cotton here in the Commonwealth.
It was hard on Cantu, getting pulled in and out of school had taken its toll on the high school junior, and he told his family he was done moving. “It was tough for me, I was the new kid, and when I made friends I would leave just a quick.”
Parts of his kin settled near Kingsville, TX. (home of the King Ranch) and Cantu found a way to break the cycle, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t continue the family tradition of hard work. He stayed with an aunt who worked at a local spanish language radio station. He kept up with his studies and even earned a migrant worker scholarship his teacher secretly acquired for him.
All through high school, Cantu worked at a local Dairy Queen. Before the age of 18, his hard work earned him a management position with nearly 20 employees under him. This trend would continue, as his bosses noticed Cantu’s ability to turn around failing stores. he was offered another store to fix, this time in Corpus Christi, TX.
“I made money there, and they realized what I was good at – turning businesses around that were in the red.” Again, his success gave him the chance to advance and next he was shipped off to a DQ in Castorville, TX.
But throughout this time, Cantu kept a secret. His sexuality was a mystery, even for him at the time, and this lead to an inquisitive boss almost ending his tenure, despite his work ethic.
“I don’t want a faggot working here,” said one of his female boss after the young, capable Cantu had gone years spurring female advances. Rumors began to spread and the conservative family that owned the chain of DQ’s he worked for was not afraid to let their bigotry known. “If [the rumors were] true, you need to find another place to work,” Cantu recalled her saying. He denied it to keep his job, but the incident has stayed with him to this day.
“I was shocked, they had been great to me in so many ways,” said Cantu. But before long he would be out from under the hateful gaze of his Texas bosses. Dairy Queen’s Corporate inspectors came through to rate stores and took notice of Cantu’s success and offered him a gig at a new DQ location in San Antonio.
But before the move, the young restaurateur continued to struggle understanding himself. “I always repressed my sexuality,” said Cantu. “I thought it was normal to hide it. I thought all guys went through this and thought the same way.” He had dated girls and thought he might have been bi-sexual. But a visit to a country-western gay bar in Austin, TX changed all that. “I’d never seen men dance like that together… it was awesome!”
Cantu had always known something was different about him, but he didn’t know there was a whole lifestyle around it. “Coming from a 6000 population town with strong Catholic values, it was hard to express yourself. I didn’t know there were other outlets.”
But as is the case with many LGBT people from small towns, getting to the big city changed all that. “I didn’t know that being gay was okay. I was very sheltered… there was no gay bars in town, there was a Dairy Queen, and the second restaurant to open was a Sonic.”
To further complicate his life, the new job meant he would have to leave school. The decision was hard, but Cantu was at a high point in his young life. “I was making more than my entire family put together had ever made!” said Cantu as he described the sky rocketing profits he was earning for DQ.
He was good at his job – so he decided to make the professional decision and take the leap into full-time restaurant work.
He confronted the boss who had questioned his sexuality and told her he was gay and he was quitting. It was weird for him to leave a job which had been a part of his life for so long, but he knew it was time to move on. “I worked for them for 10 years, since I was a junior in High school… and she was shocked.”
He left for San Antonio, but before long he was getting courted by even higher-ups at DQ. He was offered a job in Southern California and given a stipend to drive half way across the country to start his new life.
Little did he know his new job put him on the border of San Diego and Tijuana – not the best part of town to run a business. The employees weren’t trained, he almost got stabbed, people would wait to beat him up after work – it wasn’t an easy transition. But his success lead to respect and DQ’s rapid expansion lead to more work for Cantu. He was getting run ragged and the “great salary” he was promised wasn’t so great after a year of incredibly difficult work.
The stress lead to poorer numbers at work for Cantu and a meeting with his boss lead to an explosive confrontation. “I used words I’d never use in a professional setting,” Cantu said. He quit DQ and left town with friends for the weekend.
But the hard work paid off. He had saved money over the year + of time he put in with DQ in Southern California. He found more work at a local resort, but also took up a gig at a Ben & Jerry’s location (They had just started expanding nationally.) He was also out publicly as gay at work for the first time.
A strapping young man, Cantu would joke with other employees after getting phone numbers from male customers – “I always sold the most scoops!” he said with a laugh.
After 2 years in both gigs, around 1991, Cantu met someone from Richmond at a hotel convention. “I was impressed with his southern charm,” joked Cantu. The two started dating, long distance, something Raul embraced.
“California dating was awful – everyone was transient, and I wasn’t into that.”
Cantu made his way to Richmond working at The Jefferson Hotel’s Lemaire restaurant. Always the hard worker, he also worked nights at Patrick Henry’s Pub.
Unlike the movies, the boy with southern charm turned out to be more of a frog than a prince. It was hard, but Cantu stayed focused. While the relationship crumbled, his professional life and social circle flourished.
“I’ve always liked having a good quality of life – I’ll work hard, but I need to have a decent quality of life too,” said Cantu.
He left The Jefferson and shifted around different hotel chains around the Richmond area. He saved up and got money through a small business association loan to open his own business and the first Nacho Mama’s was born in September 1996.
“Carytown was great! I loved it,” said Cantu. Even as Richmond was experiencing some of its most violent days in the late 90′s, he said Carytown was still a great part of town. “There was some negativity there… on Sunday’s there would be cruising and people peeing on sidewalks in Byrd Park where I lived… but I focused on positive.”
Never afraid to network, Cantu linked up with other local businessmen in the area and they became fast friends. Carytown already had a number of gay business owners, but Cantu said the relationships he developed were different and he loved the level of professionalism. “They weren’t trying to get in my pants,” he joked.
The first night it was open, Nacho Mama’s ran out of food. The second night they ran out of booze. And the pile of cash in Cantu’s office was growing.
But it wasn’t always salted-rim glasses and cash stacks, The ebb and flow of the economy has created challenges, but with almost 20 years under it’s belt, Nacho Mama’s stayed strong. “I was able to be smart and pull myself out of some bad positions,” said Cantu.
“I run my business as professional as I can,” said Cantu as his key to success, and of course there is the hard work ethic.
The expansion of Nacho Mama’s to the Northside Clarion Hotel, known as Nacho Mama’s Bar and Grill, came from one of the many connections Cantu made from his time in Richmond. A former chef of his worked at the old restaurant in the Clarion and spoke to Cantu about the new owners not wanting to maintain the dining space anymore.
As you can imagine, Cantu didn’t shy away from a new project and he offered to come in and rebrand, expanded the menu, and revitalize the space. “I want to make it more of a community restaurant, a neighborhood restaurant,” said Cantu. “I want the hotel guests to be the gravy, but I want the local people to be the meat and potatoes.”
Shopping local and supporting local are two tenets Cantu lives by. Shortly after he opened Nacho Mama’s Carytown he jumped on board with the Carytown Merchants Association.
He helped organize meetings and helped the businesses communicate and work together. His activity in the group has since come and gone, but he returned to the post of President about two years ago. He boasted a massive increase in the CMA’s finances as well as a number of events that help the local businesses grow.
“I’m really trying to promote all the Carytown businesses,” said Cantu. He said the street’s tag as a “Mile of Style” wasn’t inclusive enough, so he’s taken on more projects to include the other shops besides the clothing boutiques. “Lets support everybody! Lets honor everyone in Carytown!”
“I need stimulation in my life, If I don’t have stimulation my batteries die,” said Cantu as we ended out interview. “Having a new project stimulates me, and I feel like this is not the end.”
The man’s battery’s must be massive, cause he doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon.
Be sure to check out Cantu at Nacho Mama’s Carytown, or over at the new Nacho Mama’s Bar and Grill in Northside.
The pool WILL BE OPEN!June 22, 2015
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