I have over 20 Mexican employees. And the real truth is that I don’t know which are legal and which aren’t. I truly don’t care. They’re loyal to me and I’m loyal to them.
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. In this installment, we hear from a restaurant owner who learned—firsthand—about the emotional sacrifices some of his employees from Mexico have to make.
My business partner at my first restaurant—an experienced chef from New York—hated hiring immigrants from Mexico.
He'd only hire them as dishwashers. "They're here one day and then gone the next," he'd say. "They're not reliable." However, my experience was the opposite. I never ask if an employee is legal. If they have the papers, that's all I really need or want to know.
One of my best employees started out as a dishwasher. I found out he had worked at a big chain as a pantry cook, so I talked my partner into trying him out at the salad station when one of our gringo cooks didn't show.
He worked with me for seven years—four at my first restaurant, and then three more at my second restaurant. I'm not sure he ever called in sick or didn't show up on time. I couldn't even force him to take a vacation.
I ended up just paying him a bonus equal to a week or two's pay so that he could take some time off. I think he only took one day off during the entire time when his daughter was born, despite my insistence he take more. He didn't drink, except one day a year on his birthday.
I wouldn't call us friends, but we had a good relationship. He didn't drive and I would often take him home after work, which gave us time to talk about more personal matters, at least as much as my bad Spanish would allow. One night, he explained to me how he came to the US from the Yucatan. His family, essentially everyone in a small town, saved up thousands of dollars to buy him papers and a plane ticket. Then he flew to the United States to the city I call home, where a cousin of his had already done the same. He eventually got married and had kids here, though a lot of his money goes back to his family in his hometown, where jobs are scarce and people are poor in a way very few poor Americans can even understand.
I have over 20 Mexican employees. And the real truth is that I don't know which are legal and which aren't. I truly don't care. They're loyal to me and I'm loyal to them.
When he did finally leave, he didn't just not show up one day. That's actually much more common among the gringo kids that have worked for me. He and a manager were butting heads and they got in an argument and he walked out. It's the typical sort of drama that could happen in any office setting. He now owns his own small restaurant, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I wish him well. It's a tough business.
Another worker comes to mind. A couple years ago, one of the Mexican ladies who works for me asked for a big advance—$5,000. I've never paid myself that much in a month. Hell, I rarely pay myself that much over two months! She needed to have a damn good reason to borrow that much. And she did. She needed the money to bring her daughter from Mexico.
The girl was ten years old and had been living with her mother's family in Puebla since the age of two. My employee had not seen her daughter in eight years. It made my heart ache. The mother had come here thinking it would be temporary, but her family depended on the money she was sending back. And then she met a man and started a new family.
I was going to help her reunite with her daughter. Because the restaurant's bank account was low from working to open a second location, I borrowed the money personally, which I lent to the restaurant, which gave her the advance.
I learned second-hand what exactly was going on and where the money would go. The daughter was with a coyote who would smuggle her into the country. The coyote would get some money to smuggle her in and more money to release her in the United States. It was a tense couple days. When the word came that the daughter was in the country, everyone was relieved. My employee found out the news at work and she cried. She then left in a hurry to meet the daughter in some southern border state and bring her back. That daughter is now in school and doing well. That employee left, still owing me a lot of money. I am trying to get repaid and she says she's going to pay it off. But the truth is, even if I never get paid, and even if I knew that I would never get paid at the time I lent the money, I still would have done it. It's been eight years that she hadn't seen her daughter. Three of those eight years were in service to me and my restaurant.
I have over 20 Mexican employees. And the real truth is that I don't know which are legal and which aren't. I truly don't care. They're loyal to me and I'm loyal to them. Sure, I've had to fire a couple who weren't cutting it, but most have been with me at least a couple years in an industry where six months at the same place can make you seem like a veteran. I'm rarely able to keep gringo employees more than a year, despite them mostly working easier front-of-the-house jobs.
I have a Mexican friend who runs a food truck. He often makes as little as $50 per day, working 12-hour days. And then he has to pay $30 for his propane. But as long as he can pay his rent so his kids can continue to get an American education, it's worth it for him.
Mexican immigrants are good for this country. Their ambition and hard work is our good fortune.
As told to Javier Cabral.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.