Tomas Estes: Pioneering Mexican Restaurants in Europe

 I have made a life of collecting challenges.

   I grew up in the east part of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s, and I was always very interested in, and in love with, Mexican culture and all its expressions and aspects. I became a

Tomas Estes

Tomas Estes

high school teacher, and while I was teaching I discovered Amsterdam, Holland, and thought to myself, “Here’s a place where I can learn about myself and life.” But I needed to find a way to support myself there. On a VW van trip from Los Angeles to Costa Rica in 1970, I decided I would create a business in Amsterdam that nobody else had created: a Mexican restaurant and cantina.

   By 1976 I had $15,000 saved up, and with that money I moved my wife and our 9-year-old son to Holland. We found a tiny storefront we could afford in a pretty bad part of town and started our first restaurant, Café Pacifico. I brought along a friend of mine, Dennis Rael as our cook. We used his family recipes.

   When we first opened, a Dutchman told me, “You’re going to have trouble, what the Dutch don’t know, they won’t eat.” And I believe that’s true of the Dutch who are provincial. They tend to be not very open-minded or adventuresome. But luckily there were enough Dutchmen, young ones, in Amsterdam, who were daring enough, and enough ones who had traveled, that we quickly had many customers.

   In those days people often paid with Eurochecks, which were kind of like travelers’ checks that were issued from banks in different places, so I could see where they were coming from – Paris, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia. I guess they knew Mexican food from traveling in the U.S. or Mexico, and we were the only Mexican restaurant/cantina in Europe. So we were a real Mecca.

   Here’s another thing: We made tortillas fresh daily there. And we had homemade food made with a lot of love and care, like tacos, enchiladas, chile Colorado, carne asada, refried beans, tostadas, and guacamole. We had tequila at the bar, and most people had no idea what that was.

   We found most of the ingredients locally – like Hungarian pepper mixed with red chile powder for our enchilada sauce. But some we had to import. For example, our avocadoes came from South Africa, Israel, or California and we got fresh chiles from Indonesia or Suriname.

   The ambiance was just magical. We had entertainers coming in, like Blondie, the rock

Jackson 5 Cafe Pacifico

The Jackson Five visit Mexican restaurant Cafe Pacifico

musician. She waited three hours at the bar. In 1978, Queen, the rock group, was awarded a platinum record in Café Pacifico. The Jackson Five and Tina Turner ate there. So we had something that appealed to artists, and they flocked in.

   One Dutchman said to me once, “Tomas you’re not just selling food or drinks, you’re selling the experience.”

   That restaurant was a big success. We wanted to expand, but rather than opening other locations in Holland – following this idea I have of embracing challenges – we went to London and started a restaurant there in 1982. Then in 1984 we opened one in Paris with one of the bartenders who was with us in London, a Frenchman.

   Those first three restaurants were all called Café Pacifico. Our logo was the same as the beer, Pacifico. I had permission from Fernando Fuentevilla, who was the vice president of Pacifico Beer in Mazatlan. I knew him through having taught his family in high school.

   Then we opened a restaurant in 1986 in Cologne, called Café Especial. Two years later,

La Perla in Paris

La Perla, Mexican restaurant in Paris

1988, was a big year: We opened a franchise of Café Pacifico in Milan; a bar in Paris, La Perla Bar; and two other restaurants in England, both called El Camino Real. Later we opened three La Perla Bars in London, and in 1997 we did a franchise in Sydney, Australia.

   Altogether I’ve opened 18 Mexican restaurants in five European countries and Australia.

   The menu changed over the years. We added things like tamales and chile rellenos, things that I like. We dropped the less selling menu items, especially if they took a lot of prep time, and kept the ones that were large sellers. We have found that fajitas, over last 15 to 20 years, have been big sellers.

   We still have tacos and enchiladas, and along the way we found suppliers of flour tortillas in Europe, which allowed us to add burritos and chimichangas. As A result of the demand we helped create, a large supply chain has grown up of tortillas made in Europe and imported from big producers in the U.S., like Mission.

   The menu in all of our restaurants has had basically the same core, though they each have their own local flavor. The head chef in each restaurant had a lot of leeway in adapting and creating and interpreting our basic menu to suit himself and the local culture. For example, in Paris we had a chocolate mousse with Kahlua dessert, and we didn’t have that in any other restaurants.

   Competition to our restaurants has come and gone. In London we had an incredible monopoly until about five years ago. Now there are all kinds of Mexican restaurants in the center of London, and some of them are extremely good. And Mexican street food has really exploded here in London as well.

   I had a program of giving the important people in each restaurant shares of ownership in those restaurants. I still have a majority ownership in the one in Paris, but I’ve sold some outright and I recently changed my majority ownership in Café Pacifico London to a minority. Five working partners, who among them have close to 100 years of time in that restaurant, now are majority owners.

   I’ll continue as the greybeard in the new co-op ownership in London and hopefully inspire them, but I’ll be much less involved. About two years ago I started a tequila brand, Tequila Ocho, and that occupies much of my attention now. Four times a year I travel to tequila country and make sure the production is OK, so I’m continuing my intimate relationship with Mexico and Mexican culture through the tequila.

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