In With the New

So Long, Seis Salsas and Green & White's Groceries

If you've just recently come to Austin, you wouldn't remember a time when Mexican restaurants only served one variety of hot sauce with tostada chips, and handmade tamales could only be purchased at the little, old Tamale House on the corner of First Street and Congress Avenue or on the east side of IH-35. With the current local boom in restaurants and specialty foods, it gets harder and harder to remember a time when exotic produce and varied ethnic food products weren't available in your neighborhood grocery and your ethnic restaurant choices were limited to Tex-Mex, Italian, and Chinese. While Austin shoppers and restaurant diners are the beneficiaries of all the expansion and competition, some long-established businesses have found it necessary to adapt to the market changes and, in some cases, close their doors.

During periods of such tremendous growth activity, it's inevitable that some longtime favorite establishments just won't make it. The demise of any business is usually due to a complex combination of factors and there is no truer example of that axiom than the closing of Seis Salsas restaurant in the fall of last year.

Luis Montemayor, Sr., and his family founded Seis Salsas restaurant in a tiny space at 2414 S. First where diners ordered at a service window and then sat at the few tables to eat. The little restaurant began to build a reputation for its selection of six homemade salsas and the freshly made tostada chips that were strips cut from their homemade corn tortillas and fried in the restaurant. The food was simple, all handmade and fresh -- very labor intensive. The South Austin restaurant quickly became a favorite haunt of governors (Mark White) and popular musicians (Stevie Ray Vaughan) alike. The restaurant's fame was built by word-of-mouth and write-ups in local, regional (Texas Monthly), and national (Rolling Stone) publications. It was even mentioned on MTV.

Seis Salsas' increased popularity eventually dictated the need for a move and in 1986, the Montemayors remodeled the former home of Jalapeño Charlie's at 2004 S. First. The new spot featured a bigger kitchen, a much larger dining room, and a specially built salsa server complete with a bin for ice, a sneeze guard, and individual serving containers. The new location was initially a success, with the owners adding margaritas to their menu, a deck for outdoor dining, and occasionally hosted live Latin music.

But Seis Salsas was not growing in a vacuum. While the Montemayors were expanding, more Mexican restaurants were opening up and down the South First corridor. La Reyna Bakery expanded in the late Eighties to open a restaurant right up the block; and by the early Nineties Evita's Botanitas began developing a clientele due to their ever-changing array of sauces. A taqueria called Borrego del Oro was thriving in the old Seis Salsas location and the Aranda's chain opened their fifth location nearby. Jovita's was growing on the east side of First Street to the north of Seis Salsas, and Little Mexico restaurant was expanding a few blocks to the south. The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Challenge became nationally known while restaurants, grocery stores, and condiment companies were all making hot sauces in every variety imaginable.

In 1994, a series of difficulties struck the Montemayor family. Luis, Sr., became ill and passed away, and his widow Irene and son Luis, Jr., subsequently became ill. The youngest son Juan Antonio Montemayor was eventually called upon to take over a restaurant seriously burdened with debt and suffering from inattention. Business revenue began to drop and problems with Health Department sanitation inspections became serious. In 1994, the restaurant failed health inspections, scoring less than 60 on at least two occasions, resulting in quarterly inspections in 1995. Infractions had to be corrected or they would be forced to close down. Some of the infractions were related to sanitation and some were related to structural problems, but evidence of rat feces is common in the Health Department inspection reports for 1994 and 1995.

In the fall of 1995, attempting to carve out a competitive segment in the crowded local TV market, the new Fox affiliate's newscast began a heavily promoted consumer affairs segment called "Restaurant Scorecard." It was patterned after a similar program on Houston's ABC affiliate, Channel 13, a proven ratings-grabber featuring flamboyant, white-haired consumer reporter Marvin Zindler. It was struggling Seis Salsas' misfortune to be featured during a Channel 7 "sweeps week" program that had been sensationally promoted for several days before the air date with statements like "Check out Austin's dirtiest restaurants!" (As previously reported here, the Austin Restaurant Association voiced their concerns about the "Restaurant Scorecard" program to Channel 7 and the program has since been suspended.) While the powerful impact of that kind of negative exposure would be disastrous to any business, the Montemayors acknowledge that Seis Salsas was already in deep and serious trouble before the program aired and that their financial and Health Department problems were not the fault of the television program.

Seis Salsas closed in the fall 1995 with little fanfare. Family members are busy trying to regroup financially and find employment. When I spoke with the Montemayor brothers recently, both of them expressed their appreciation for the loyalty of their clientele over the years and their desire to see their popular salsas on grocery store shelves some day in the future. "Tell people the spirit of Seis Salsas lives," says Juan Antonio. Life and competition proceed on S. First, where first-time restaurateur Elvia Ramirez has taken over the old Seis Salsas location to open El Mexicano Restaurant earlier this month.

On the east side of I-35 another longtime Austin business has felt the effects of change and is lucky enough to have the opportunity to adapt to evolving trends. The Green & White Grocery at 1201 E. Seventh has been an Austin institution since 1936. Founder Roberto Lopez built the store and later a motor court which provided service to the community for many years. John Cazares, Sr., went to work for Mr. Lopez in the Forties and married the boss' daughter Olga, and over a period of 50 years, the Green & White Grocery supported their family and sent six children to college. The Green & White grew and changed as necessary, selling hardware and bulk foods in the early days when they were the last stop on the highway out of town to the east. Later came the handmade tacos and tamales that made the store famous citywide for the past 30 years.

The store has always been a vital part of its East Austin neighborhood, selling herbs, canned chilies, Mexican vanilla, and other imported products that the loyal clientele could not find in any other stores alongside the regular groceries. But the Cazares family saw the marketplace change dramatically during the recent restaurant and grocery boom. Ethnic specialty products and imported foods are now available in many mainstream grocery stores, and chain stores with volume buying power can sell staple items such as milk, bread, beer, cigarettes, and sodas cheaper than a small "mom and pop" grocery.

John Cazares, Jr., now the proprietor of Green & White Grocery, is currently making changes that he hopes will carry his family's venerable neighborhood business well into the 21st century. When his beer license expires this week, it will not be renewed; cigarettes will disappear, and Cazares is busy liquidating the remaining grocery stock. The store will no longer sell the labor-intensive handmade tacos and tamales. The new Green & White Grocery will be a yerberia, a Mexican shop where patrons can purchase herbs, folk remedies, imported products, santos, candles, and charms. Cazares will also sell vitamins, herbal supplements, and other products that contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

A longtime student of Chinese martial arts, John Cazares, Jr., found that it was natural to direct his business along the same path his life now follows, and he is optimistic about making a living providing his neighbors with a product line that will enrich and enhance their lives. Cazares makes it clear that he does not consider himself a curandero or Mexican folk-medicine practitioner and he will not endorse or recommend healers in the store. However, mystical as well as herbal folk remedies will be available there.

Naturally, there has been audible grumbling around the neighborhood and around the city regarding the upcoming changes at the Green & White. I was quickly placated when Cazares assured me that he will still sell the La Vencedora Mexican vanilla I love. Others have expressed outrage, telling him heatedly they've bought their Christmas tamales at Green & White for 30 years. While he's sure that's true, John Cazares politely reminds them that for most of the tamale customers that amounts to only 30 sales each in all those years. Though the new proprietor of Green & White Grocery won't be a grocer selling tamales, his analysis of the market and his instincts tell him that the changes he's making will see to it that Green & White Grocery will continue to be an East Austin institution and will be a viable business to pass on to another generation of his family. n

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