Tex-Mex Exec

Mico Rodriguez, the heart and soul behind Mi Cocina and partner at the M Crowd, never dreamed he’d be the head of a restaurant empire, but he built it—three tables at a time.

Whatever goosebumps arose on Mico’s forearms this morning recede as we make our way to the kitchen. The stairs leading to the loft aren’t clean enough. A strip of rubberized flooring is peeling up near the ice machine. A service bar needs refitting. Later Mico will complain that the upstairs tables, the ones along the railing, are out of position. A salt shaker knocked from any of them would fall to the first floor. In a sense, he and I are looking at two different scenes: Where I see a banquette, he sees the stitching.

A discrete camera mounted in the corner of the kitchen focuses on the stainless steel prep area. I ask about it. “Everyone’s happy when I show up,” Mico explains. “I want to know what it’s like when I’m not here. I’m looking for a heightened awareness.”

Mico will tell you that the restaurant business is mostly about managing behaviors. He praises, scolds, promotes, and fires. He dispenses cash and hands out Christmas presents. Like the Cuellar brothers, the founders of El Chico, Mico steps in when employees need help. When he’s in his Tony Soprano mode, he parks near the dumpsters. All sorts of things go wrong at the back of a restaurant, but perhaps the most egregious to Mico is paying for poor quality produce. He’s notoriously tough on the purveyors who supply his restaurants. “It’s easy to be his friend,” one local businessman told me. “Just don’t bring him any bruised lemons.”

Juanita Miller is almost single-handedly responsible for Mico being in the Highland Park Village and, as a result, for much of what has followed. When she and her husband, Henry S. Miller, and their son, Henry III, went looking for a restaurant to replace Los Vaqueros in 1992, they ate at every prospective Mexican food place in town. “We visited some several times,” she tells me in a phone call from Paris, where she and her husband have an apartment. “At Mico’s there were always families eating together, just like what we had at the Village,” she says.

Her husband and son were less certain about putting Mi Cocina in such a prominent space. At the time, Mico commanded a restaurant that had only 12 tables and operated out of a nearly deserted strip center. But Juanita insisted. “Mico’s was pleasant and clean,” she remembers. “The food was good and we knew Mico’s background.”

Near the end of our conversation, Juanita paused and cupped the receiver, “Henry,” she said to her husband, who I could hear in the background, “what else did I say?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says, returning to me. “I liked the idea of Mico wanting to be the best.”

Before we leave Mi Cocina to head toward downtown, Mico breaks away to chat with a man peeling potatoes. Mico calls him by name. The men speak for a minute or two, exchanging pleasantries. As we turn to leave, I ask about the potato peeler. “He’s been with me for five years,” Mico says.

Operating in an industry known for heavy turnover and in an era in which every restaurant has an “accepting applications” banner out front, Mico enjoys a buyer’s market for employees. Those who meet his demands find a home and a career. Busboys become waiters, waiters become general managers, and general managers end up in the executive office. It’s possible to become a partner.

When Gene Street talks about Mico, his praise sounds like golf pros acknowledging Tiger Woods—a stream of superlatives that include, embedded within, a hope that he’ll take up another game. Street knows a thing or two about restaurants. He and Phil Cobb started the Black-Eyed Pea chain. Street and his partners went on to build a $280 million restaurant conglomerate that includes Good Eats, Spaghetti Warehouse, Cool River, and III Forks. Street also owns El Chico.

“I ate at Mi Cocina just last night,” Street told me a week or so after my day with Mico. “Great meal. In 12 minutes, I had my tea sweetened, my food served, and a check. Every restaurant manager who goes into one of their places says to himself, ‘This is what I want to be.’” Street’s not the only person in his family to sneak over to Mi Cocina. “What really gets me,” he laughs, “is that my wife, Lisa, likes Mi Cocina better than my Mexican restaurants.” Street also owns Casa Rosa and Cantina Laredo. “She’ll say that she goes to Mi Cocina because her friends go there, but I see her credit card bills.”

“Listen,” he continues, “Mico has almost a vengeance for success. He’s a very fierce competitor. He’s probably tough to work for, but I’ll tell you this: We love to hire people from Mi Cocina. They come with a quality glean. Mi Cocina is the benchmark in Dallas.”

Riding shotgun with Mico requires both hands. Writing is almost impossible. Between the Village Mi Cocina and the Katy Trestle, I manage to jot down “story line” and “executive producer.” All day long I hear them. “Story line” refers to the new restaurants that Mico and his partners are developing, and “executive producer” refers to him. Sometimes the words seem new and stiff, as though they were part of a Hollywood vocabulary-building exercise. Most of the time they sound as though they are for Mico’s benefit, not mine. Perhaps by speaking of his restaurants in show business terms, Mico reinforces the length of his remarkable journey.

“When we started Mi Cocina, I hadn’t been anywhere,” he tells me. “Not even Mexico.” By the time the Highland Park Village restaurant was up and running, Mico started looking around. A trip to Mexico City introduced him to taquerias, Pond of the Frog in particular. Before long he packed up his partners and flew down for a closer inspection. The result was Taco Diner in Preston Center. Trips to New York, Europe, and Asia led Mico and his partners to create a fine dining division with executive chef Chris Ward. Together, Mico and Ward created The Mercury and Citizen. As Mico’s circle of experience has widened, his passion for and knowledge of food has deepened.

The offices of Mi Cocina and the other “story lines” will soon move to the West Village in Uptown, above Paris Vendome. The present offices, located on Cedar Springs, are decorated with a combination of leftover office furniture and expensive Aeron desk chairs. In the conference room, a longish table is pushed to one end, pinning chairs along a wall. The real action takes place at a smaller table near a bookcase. The bookcase is filled with glasses, plates, and bowls, the way other businesses display auto parts or stock offerings encased in Lucite. Many of the glasses and plates have Post-It Notes attached. A note on a glass asks, “tea or water?”

One by one, the M Crowd operations team members file in for their Monday meeting with Mico. The issues are conceptual and practical: The team reviews architectural plans for a new restaurant in Fort Worth, discusses computer glitches and proprietary margarita mixes, and plans the switching of fryers at two Mi Cocina locations. Much of the talk centers on food purveyors, although it is cryptic and impossible for me to understand. This is a business, evidently, of broad themes and neverending details. Not all of the details are chores, however. Today is Land Rover trade-in day for the executive staff. The new company car is a Lexus SUV. Take care of Mico and Mico takes care of you. As the team files out, they go with Mico’s standing order, “Find me better beans, better cheese, better meat.”

When they are gone he turns to me. “We’re old-fashioned here,” he says. “We’re trying to build neighborhood hangouts. We don’t talk about units or table counts. We talk about people, value, and character.”

Tech investors like to talk about scalability—the relative ease with which a company can grow. Mico’s empire is scaleable in the most fundamental aspect: It grows little Micos. Mico sends me to lunch at Taco Diner with the company’s vice president of operations, David Navarrete, to get a first-hand look.

Navarrete has worked at various restaurants for 27 years. He owned Cafe 450 on Lower Greenville until he gave it up to work with Mico. By noon, the Preston Center Taco Diner is packed. Navarrete explains Mi Cocina’s philosophy of growing employees and the business over poblano soup and chicken tacos. It turns out that the idea originally comes from the Cuellar brothers. “See those three tables,” Navarrete says, motioning over my shoulder. “We tell our waiters, ‘You’re a businessman now. Those three tables are your restaurant. Give it the personal touch that you would give in your home.’”

The employees that are energized by running their own show stay on. Ramon Cruz has. Cruz is general manager of Taco Diner. He’s followed Mico from Mia’s to the Lakewood Mi Cocina to Taco Diner. Cruz has taken the next step with the company by becoming an equity partner. There is no video camera more powerful than an owner on premises.

By the time I get back to the M Crowd’s offices, the partners are all crowded around Mico to pore over plans for a new restaurant. Mico is rushing to tie up loose ends so he can leave on an 18-day trip to Paris to shop flea markets for Paris Vendome. He’ll eat, too. On a typical overseas trip, Mico eats at 20 to 50 different places. Perhaps he’ll discover something in the City of Lights that will work back home. If he does, another generation of Micos will start their own businesses with him. Three tables at a time.

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