After 100 years of operating El Cholo—Los Angeles’ third oldest Mexican restaurant—in Southern California, owner Ron Salisbury decided to look at opening a location outside the state for the first time.
His grandparents, Alejandro and Rosa Borquez, had first founded El Cholo, originally called the Sonoro Café, in Downtown LA in 1923 and his parents, Aurelia and George Salisbury, later opened a second location as El Cholo on Western Avenue.
The Salisbury couple would later move service to a bungalow house across the street which remains open to this day.
Salisbury opened his own location, and the first outside of LA, in 1962 in La Habra.
As his parents’ only child, Salisbury said he knew he would eventually take over the family company. Marking the third generation to run the El Cholo business, Ron took up the mantle in 1967 but admitted he didn’t take it seriously until he had a family of his own.
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said, adding that his earliest childhood memories were of sitting in his parent’s restaurant. “When it was time to get serious, it then seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”
Almost 60 years later, there are now six El Cholo restaurants open alongside two fine-dining concepts in Newport Beach, The
Cannery and Louie’s by the Bay, which Salisbury manages under his firm Restaurant Business Inc. headquartered in La Habra.
He now has seven children, 18 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren who have all been involved, or will be, in the business. The sixth generation of the family is set to intern with the company this summer after she graduates college.
“It’s an ode to what my family built and it’s my job to keep it going and pass it on,” Salisbury told the Business Journal.
Salisbury received the Longevity Award during the Business Journal’s 24th Family-Owned Business Awards ceremony held on May 31 at the Irvine Marriott.
In March, he was also named the Business Journal’s 2023 Restaurateur of the Year.
“[My grandparents] were a young couple that came from a territory in Arizona to Los Angeles with one simple idea and that was to build a business that they could create a good living and to be proud of. And I hope they’re proud of us today,” Salisbury said when accepting the latest recognition.
When it came to expanding to Utah, the first time ever Salisbury will operate a restaurant outside of California, the exec described it as a selfish act at first.
“At 90 years old, I needed to do something that I normally wouldn’t even do if I was 85 or 80.”
Salisbury attended Brigham Young University in Utah in the 1950s and has loved the area since. He added that recent California laws were making it difficult to open new restaurants while Utah offers a new horizon.
“It’s like the Wild West all over again—there’s all these fresh opportunities.”
After speaking to fellow restaurant owners down in Salt Lake City, Salisbury chose a 9,000-square-foot location that is expected to open near the end of August.
He also hopes to show the next generation a possible business path to take when he eventually steps down.
At the awards ceremony, presenter Jeffrey Verdon of Falcon Rappaport & Berkman stated that a mere 3% of family business passes on to a fourth generation.
Salisbury’s 68-year career sets up El Cholo to surpass that expectation.
“It’s giving the generation to follow after me a foothold here. Whatever they choose to do, the opportunities are here.”
Salisbury’s expansion plans have typically been based on opportunity rather than an exact strategy. His current portfolio of restaurants can generate annual revenue up to $50 million or more.
“It’s not about an empire,” he said of the six locations El Cholo has operated in the past 100 years. Original family recipes have remained, and the restaurants became known for menu items like margaritas and combo plates.
“I was always happy with what we had, until all of a sudden, some opportunity came up and I thought, ‘I can’t imagine not putting a restaurant there,’” Salisbury said.
Every new location has been a second-generation building, from Santa Monica to Corona del Mar. Both Louie’s and the Cannery were previous restaurant concepts that Salisbury was asked to take over. The Newport Beach locations were previously a Ritz Restaurant space and an old seafood restaurant, respectively.
“When opening new locations, the buildings seek us out rather than the other way around,” the company’s website notes.
“Any building today is going to look too modern and formatted,” the owner said of the pattern.
When it comes to future locations, Salisbury will leave it to his successors.
“If they run what we have really well and they see something they think would be an exciting opportunity, then I’d say do it.” As long as the El Cholo standards are maintained, Salisbury added.