Dave Olson, Published December 16 2011
Juano’s celebrates 15 years in Fargo-Moorhead
“It was a nice soft opening, because people kind of empty out of the city,” Annele Mondragon said, recalling the lull before the storm.
The storm arrived that autumn, when life returned to downtown.
“We call it Black Wednesday, because we were not ready,” Annele Mondragon said, smiling at the memory.
She can laugh now, but nothing was certain when the Mondragons took a deep breath and stepped into the restaurant business 15 years ago, an anniversary they are marking this month with special events and offers.
The couple was living in California when they got the idea to open a business featuring authentic Mexican food made from scratch.
Juan Mondragon, who is originally from Mexico City, was a tennis pro working in Riverside, Calif., though he also held a degree in hotel and restaurant management.
Annele Mondragon, whose first 16 years were spent in Fargo, was a busy mom to the couple’s son, John, and working for a university catering department.
The job sparked in her a passion for restaurants, but California didn’t seem to be the right place to go into business or to raise a son.
“The gangs had taken over, and our son was 10,” Annele Mondragon recalled. “We couldn’t send him on a bike ride because things had gotten kind of crazy.”
So she returned to her hometown of Fargo to scope out possible places to open a restaurant, and her husband continued with the tennis, for a while.
“I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. The business was changing,” he said.
“I remember one kid, I told him to do something, and he said, ‘I don’t want to do that, and my parents are paying tuition.’ It was time for me to make a change,” Juan Mondragon recalled.
That change was Juano’s restaurant, which turned out to be a hit with local diners, and within a few years, the Mondragons were opening more locations around Fargo and Moorhead.
Today, they own and operate the original Juano’s, as well as four Juano’s Express stores.
In addition, they have John Alexander’s, which opened in downtown Moorhead in 2008 and features classic American dishes.
Over time, the following division of labor emerged: He watches over the downtown Fargo flagship while she supervises the goings-on at John Alexander’s.
And for the record, when the Mondragons talk about supervising, they mean supervising.
“They always say in this business you’re as good as the last meal,’’ Annele Mondragon said. “But I feel you’re as good as the last bite.
“Most of the time it’s good, when you get good people,” she said.
According to Juan Mondragon, one factor in particular accounts for much of their success.
“Pay attention to detail,” he said.
“Every day,” his wife emphasized, adding that many people who start a restaurant don’t realize how hands-on they need to be.
Given Juano’s brand strength, people often encourage the Mondragons to expand to other cities in the region.
The couple is open to the idea of selling franchises, but they’re not keen on opening more stores themselves.
“I want to do restaurant consulting,” Annele Mondragon said. “I don’t really want to grow any more of our own restaurants, but I wouldn’t mind setting them up for franchising.”
Right now, Juano’s is in the middle of a menu revamp, something that occurs every now and then.
“We have people that have the same thing since they started coming here 15 years ago. You don’t get rid of those, but things become dated. You gotta keep it fresh,” Annele Mondragon said.
“You have your stars and your dogs,” her husband added, referring to menu items that stick around or wind up retired.
He added that an early feature of Juano’s, live music on Friday and Saturday nights, has been brought out of retirement.
But cigarette smoke won’t be, and never has been, part of the ambiance.
“Fifteen years ago, we were told you shouldn’t do that, it’s going to be a big mistake,” Annele said, adding that the dire prediction never materialized.
“It was the best thing we ever did,” she said. “We had people come up and thank us.”
Juano’s is offering specials to mark anniversary
To thank customers for 15 years of business, Juan and Annele Mondragon, owners of Juano’s and John Alexander’s restaurants in the Fargo-Moorhead area, are offering the following specials:
- Daily lunch and dinner specials, $15 for two at all locations.
- Daily drawings to win “Juano Bucks” and gift certificates.
- Juano’s downtown will offer drink specials daily and live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555