Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
If Enrique Aguilera wanted to do so, he could move his Eastside restaurant, Lolita’s Tacos, to a busier commercial strip and likely make more money. He’s certainly had offers.
But Aguilera, who opened his taqueria almost three years ago, opened his heart to his Eastside neighbors at the same time. As one of the only restaurants on that stretch of East Main and the corner of Humphrey, which has seen several food establishments come and go over the years, Aguilera knows that a move would not only limit food options on the Eastside, it would also detract from local employment.
“We don’t have big paychecks,” he says regarding his seven employees, “but we have big heart.”
Enrique Aguilera says he loves having a business on Kalamazoo’s Eastside. • Photo by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography
He talks about a recent offer to move his restaurant that was tempting. His brain, he says, wants to make more money.
“But what about the neighbors?” says Aguilera. “I have a lot of people who come to eat here. I talk to everybody like a family. I could make big money there, but I lose my good friends from here.”
As any first-time business owner knows, the first few years can be lean, and Aguilera's certainly were. The first year, the restaurant was struggling and almost closed, but he couldn’t bear to do that near Christmas. He managed to keep the doors open by paying only the rent and his employees.
When he considers a move, he thinks of the three years he’s already invested in his current location. “I want to stay here for my years,” he says. “This is my life dream.”
And while his wife may not always understand his reasoning, he says, he’s starting to see some modest gains. “I told my wife, every day, every hour, it’s a business for me,” says Aguilera. “When you put all your heart in it before you make big money, you feel good. I’m not going to be happy making millions. I’m happy because I put my heart in it.”
And the restaurant certainly has heart. Recent new patrons, Blake Gould of Grand Rapids and Lauren Garrett of Kalamazoo, stopped in on a whim after a quick internet search. They love tacos, they said. “We like to try new, more ethnic places, “ says Gould. “We like to mix it up.”
Both were pleased with the food and service. “This salsa is on point,” says Gould, and Garrett concurs. “It has a fresh, really delicious flavor.”
Gould, a culinary arts graduate, had ordered chicken tacos, which he called “chef approved.” “The chicken is really fresh and tender,” he says, “and that’s hard to do.”
Garrett, as a Kalamazoo resident, told Gould she’s kicking herself for not visiting Lolita’s earlier, but now will be telling all her friends. And word-of-mouth is the way most find out about Lolita’s, which doesn’t have an advertising or promotion budget.
“Some people say put our name on the radio and the newspaper,” says Aguilera. “That’s spending money I don’t have. I can buy a chair before I place an ad.”
That lack of advertising is not stopping other newcomers from finding Lolita’s. Both Google reviews, which number around 350, and Tripadvisor, rate Lolita’s at 4.5 stars. One reviewer stated, “Best tacos in the area hands-down.” Another wrote, “Podunk little spot that you'd miss if you weren't looking for it. Glad I found it. Fantastic tacos and even better service. Will be back.”
Lolita’s, named after a Spanish endearment for his wife, Dolores, is a charming, colorful, tidy diner. Paper flags, with cut-out Mexican-inspired designs including the Lolita’s emblem and name, hang from the ceiling. While the chairs and the unpainted cement floor are rustic and the booth seats a bit wobbly, the staff is friendly and service-oriented.
Everyone is greeted as soon as they come through the door, whether by waitstaff, the cook, or Aguilera himself. Everyone is treated like a possible friend.
The paint colors, bright orange, and yellow walls, were not chosen to fit a color scheme, but because they were remaindered at Menard’s, says Aguilera, who was doing what he could during the opening to keep costs down.
Enrique Aquilera owns Lolita’s Tacos, 2307 East Main St. • Photo by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography
While Lolita’s is not the only Eastside Mexican restaurant (there are two more within the city boundaries), it’s the only one located in the middle of a residential area. In fact, Lolita’s is technically just outside of the Eastside city limits in Eastwood, which is Kalamazoo Township. But Eastsiders don’t always discriminate boundaries when they talk about their neighborhood.
“I am pleased that Lolita’s Tacos has been able to make a go of that triangle parcel after several years of restaurants coming and going in that spot,” says Pat Taylor, Director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association. “As a former (Kalamazoo) Township Trustee, I had been dreaming of East Main Street being a stretch of businesses for quite some time.”
No newcomer to restaurant work, Aguilera has spent over 35 years working in kitchens in Chicago and Kalamazoo. In Chicago, he worked for ten years for Portillo’s Hot Dogs, a well-known and well-franchised city eatery. In Kalamazoo, he and his wife both worked for a few years at El Gallo Blanco, 2838 Portage St. But in the back of his mind, Aguilera always wanted to open his own place.
He just didn’t have the money. But he was fortunate to meet with the current owner of the building who offered him the first six months rent-free. “He let me work here and paint here instead,” says Aguilera. Then he found generous sellers of produce who gave him three weeks credit.
In the end, he says, he just had to do it. “If you have too many things on your mind, you never do it. You just have to do it.”
With no training in owning a business, Aguilera is learning as he goes. He’s now able to put some money away each month for a possible down payment on the building, which the owner would like to sell to him.
“This is my life dream,” he says. “I want to be owning the whole business. If I have no dreams, I have nothing.”
Eastside roots: Growing by the day
When Aguilera was first considering opening a restaurant on the Eastside, he met his detractors. “Before we opened here, I told people I know about the Eastside,” he says. “They said, ‘Don’t go there. There’s bad people there.’
“I never saw it that way. Everywhere in the whole world, there’s problems. But we’re all human.
“We never see any problems in the parking lot with the people,” he says. “I don’t see any bad. Everybody is human like me. A bad look—everybody’s got it. But you never know about the heart inside.”
His regular customers are invested in his staying open. Some have even offered to help him paint his floors and do other sorts of work on his place. Some spread the word on Facebook and almost all tell their friends.
“This is where I do my business,” says Aguilera of the Eastside. “They know me and try to help me be open.”
The former owner told Aguilera it took him six years to buy his business, and so Aguilera considers that he’s already invested three. He has three more to go.
And it’s the neighbors who Aguilera says he has come to know and love that keep him where he is. His favorite part of working is chatting with the customers after they eat.
Aguilera doesn’t believe in skimping on portions so he doesn’t offer $1 tacos as other businesses do for specials. His are always $2.50 and can be ordered Mexican-style with cilantro and grilled onions or American-style with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and sour cream. Meat choices include steak, chicken, marinated pork, mushrooms, fish, cactus, ground beef with carrots and potatoes, and poblano peppers. Customers can choose between white or yellow corn and flour tortillas.
A number of tortas (sandwiches), wet burritos, fajitas and a variety of plates, including Lolita’s Especial Enchiladas, are also available.
Located at 2307 East Main, Lolita’s serves dine-in and take-out. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The tacos, particularly the specially-seasoned steak tacos, are the most popular item on the menu, Aguilera says.
“Day by day, more people come,” he says. “Every customer is up before they leave, they say, ‘Thank you. I like your flavor.’ They like everything we have, but almost everyone loves the tacos. When they leave, they say, ‘This is a good place.’
“Some people just want to buy one taco. That’s barely nothing. But I’m happy,” says Aguilero. “It’s the same for me if they buy one hundred tacos. This is why I put my heart in it.”
Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography