Peter Madrid

Quality comes 1st in her restaurant

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When Veronica Cardenas was 6 years old, there was no place she’d rather be than in the kitchen of the family restaurant.

That persistent precociousness would pay off as she took ownership three years ago of one of the Valley’s most popular Mexican bakery/restaurants.

“I used to love to get in the kitchen. Ask questions. Hang out with the chef. I always wanted to have my own restaurant,” says Cardenas, 39, owner of La Tolteca Mexican food restaurant.

Cardenas’ parents owned a Chinese restaurant in Colima, Mexico. She grew up around the business and at the age of 18 moved to California. Soon after, she became adept at opening a restaurant, getting it going and running it. In Los Angeles she managed restaurants in the Macayo’s Mexican food and Landry’s seafood chains. She also helped open two Italian restaurants.

Brimming with entrepreneurial pride and savvy business acumen, she’s now running her own place. And what a difference from past establishments she’s helped get off the ground.

La Tolteca sits at the corner of 12th Street and Van Buren in downtown Phoenix. For years it was a tiny Mexican eatery on Washington Street. Today La Tolteca is housed in a 9,000-square foot building that holds a restaurant, bakery, meat department and mercado.

Some mind-boggling facts about La Tolteca:

– More than a quarter ton of dough and between 100 and 150 pounds of sugar are used daily in preparing pastries and sweet breads;

– It produces more than 150 dozen tortillas each day;

– About 400 pounds of fresh corn is grinded daily for use in tortillas and seven varieties of tamales;

– It boasts to making and carrying the “largest” flour tortilla in the Valley (it is used in its famous 3-pound burrito).

But Cardenas’ business model for success isn’t about quantity. Or worrying about competition, for that matter.

“I care more about quality than just giving you a taco for a dollar,” Cardenas says. “When Ranch Market opened, business did drop off a bit. But I’m not competing with them. I am not a supermarket. It’s a totally different type of food.

“It’s more a Guadalajara style. The only things I kept (from the original restaurant) were the red and green chili and the super burrito. I built the menu and changed so many things.”

Prior to Cardenas taking over as manager, there hadn’t been much change with the La Tolteca brand. It was opened more than 50 years ago by Basilios Tsakaris, who eventually sold La Tolteca to Valley businessman Dave Christenholz. Cardenas then bought La Tolteca from Christenholz three years ago.

“The general manager looked at me, recommended me,” Cardenas says of her early days at La Tolteca. “He asked if I wanted to get in. I said, ‘forget it.’ That was 12 years ago. He asked for me to help him manage. At the time there were three other locations. Just restaurants. They had up to seven, but closed them all down because of business problems. They wanted to keep just one – the one now – open.”

La Tolteca bristles with activity during the lunch hour and weekend mornings. Asked about her clientele, Cardenas says:

“It’s pretty much 50-50 (Latinos to non-Latinos). I do have ladies that look for masa for tortillas for their husbands. They know they can rely on getting fresh masa here. And quality stuff. Pure corn that you don’t get everywhere. Masa is a big thing. Those are the loyal customers. On the weekends the bakery gets its loyal customers.”

Her advice to other entrepreneurs:

“Don’t give up,” she says. “Being consistent in whatever business (you own) is what counts. The way the economy is, you have to love your business. This is what I love. It would be hard to give it up.

BUSINESS  SNAPSHOT

La Tolteca
1205 E. Van Buren
Phoenix, Ariz.
(602) 253-1511
www.latoltecamex.com

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