Tired phrase, yes, but there is no doubt that life comes at you fast. Indeed it does.
It happens to the best of us. For all of your visions, dreams and hopes of the path you plan for yourself, sometimes fate makes the path a little more clear. So you take that route. Twenty years later, you pop your head out of the sand, look around and say, "This is great, but it's nothing like I envisioned a long time ago."
It would be fair to say something like that happened to Arnoldo Gomez, owner and president of one of Savannah's more popular Mexican restaurant chains, Cilantro's. As the story begins, he was in Claxton when he stumbled upon a storefront that had the potential to be a restaurant. It sat at the far end of an otherwise empty, nondescript strip mall.
"There was a place that made copies and prints pages," he says, "But there was a hood in the back, so it had been a restaurant before."
He made an offer on the space with hopes of turning it back in to a Mexican restaurant. Once he opened, he expanded through the walls of that strip mall quickly. He added a video game room for kids and event space for parties. Not too long later, Cilantro's Mexican Restaurant occupied the majority of the strip mall.
Then came the fork in the road.
"Someone from the bank came to me and told me that the entire shopping center was for sale," Gomez says. "They told me I would be the perfect person to buy it because I was already occupying it."
The idea sounded great. Flattering, even. Ultimately, there's a big difference between operating a restaurant and owning a strip mall with potential tenants and 3 acres of land that came with it. He admitted to me he had no clue how he'd handle all of that. Still, he put pen to paper, coming up with an offer he could afford, but was sure they'd reject on the steps of the courthouse.
"I got there and looked around," he says. "I was the only one there."
He was also the new owner of a strip mall and 3 acres of land in Claxton.The rest of that story is yours to eat it and like it.
Eleven years and a handful of Cilantro's Mexican Grill locations across coastal Georgia later, Gomez is trying his hand at a spinoff. Mexicali Fresh Grill is his newest spot in Savannah's Berwick neighborhood, just off of U.S. 17.
"I wanted to do something different with this," he says. "A little more authentic menu, but everything fresh. We don't have a freezer here. We prep everything in the morning."
That part isn't very different from the other higher-end Mexican restaurants in the Savannah area. The good ones do it well. The two times I've had dinner at Mexicali, we very much ate it and liked it there, too. The space is modern but colorful with clean lines of sight across the restaurant.
The look, the packaging and the atmosphere, he's got down pat. Add good food to the mix and this is easily a concept that could grow on its own. Gomez tells me he's already had property owners ask him to bring this bright and shiny concept to their part of town.
"Owners of other shopping centers have asked me to put one there," he says. "But I want to take my time and figure out what works best here first."
Fair enough. Walk before you can run, I suppose. Who's to say this concept won't have a totally different look and feel within a year or two? One never knows, does one?
Arnoldo Gomez sure knows that.
Saturday, March 10, they are hosting a grand opening celebration. There will be live music, fun for the kids and more. Stop by and say hello.
See you on TV,