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The following interview is a sample from the chapter “Planetary Pioneers” in my forthcoming book, StarWords: Inspirational Conversations with Extraordinary Monterey Peninsulans:

Stardust Inspiration: This inventive man didn’t let naysayers or discrimination deter him from his dream to own a restaurant, and to bring his tasty frozen-margarita to the masses. At age 5, Mariano Martinez and his family moved to an all-white neighborhood where, in school, he said, “I felt like a third-rate citizen.”

A high school dropout, who had the chutzpah to go back to school in adulthood, he has half a dozen restaurants now. With perseverance, a strong work ethic and sound values, he is still churning out dreams and margaritas. “I take dreams and manifest them,” he said. This inspiring interview was conducted on July 21, 2002.

Mariano Martinez Mixes up an American Dream

Mariano Martinez is the personification of the American dream. “My father worked in a speak-easy . . . Some knew me as a Mexican kid from Little Mexico (Texas) who said, ‘Someday I’ll have my own restaurant and invite you to my press party.’”

He grew up, followed through and was turned down by 10 banks. But with $500 and an SBA loan, he conceived his first restaurant in the middle of a cow pasture in Dallas. His friends said he was crazy. That restaurant, Mariano’s, served nearly 300,000 people last year and is just one of six Tex-Mex restaurants that Martinez owns.

Not to mention, he was given resolutions last year from the state of Texas and the city of Dallas for inventing the frozen-margarita machine that, 31 years later, continues to churn out success and brain freeze.

“It’s like a souped-up Slurpee machine,” says the 57-year-old as he quaffs margaritas at his palatial Pebble Beach second home. His rectangular reading glasses, peppered black hair and graying goatee add seasoning to his life that is still on the fast track of entrepreneurial innovation. “I’m an entrepreneur, not a restaurateur,” he says. “You’ll never see me in the kitchens. I take dreams and manifest them. I’m working on a new restaurant concept but I can’t divulge it yet.”

Q: How has notoriety changed you?
A: I guess it’s helped my self-esteem. I was born in Little Mexico (Dallas) and my first language was Spanish. When I was 5 we moved to a pristine all-white neighborhood where we were the only Mexican family and I was the only Mexican kid in school. A lot of time I felt like a third-rate citizen. My notoriety has helped make amends with that.

Q: What has rejection taught you?
A: For an entrepreneur it’s a strange kind of fuel, as it keeps you going in the face of the longest odds.

Q: How has the definition of entrepreneur changed in 20 years?
A: I think it’s used too loosely today. I feel like I’m a classic entrepreneur: someone who takes ideas and turns them into reality. Now the term is so loose it’s applied to anyone who buys a business or a gift shop in Carmel. They’re not entrepreneurs if they bought existing businesses. An entrepreneur is one who starts with just an idea or dream, and turns it into a business. Someone who just buys an existing business or franchise is a business owner.

Q: What was your first crushed ice drink - Slurpee, slush, frappe or smoothie?
A: My father’s special recipe margarita that he made in a blender. I was just a kid but I’d sneak some tastes.

Q: Devil’s advocate: Your invention promotes a potentially addictive substance.
A: We sent all our employees to alcohol-awareness classes. They’re taught some of the signals when people have had enough. You’re not going to stop people from drinking. I guess you can get drunk on frozen margaritas but there’s probably less alcohol in that drink than sitting around drinking scotch and water.

Q: How has the designated driver and responsible bartending affected your business?
A: In general, people don’t drink as much as they used to in the ‘70s. Cracking down on DUIs had a lot to do with it. People are more health conscious now. Back at the first Mariano’s there was live entertainment and people would stay and drink and smoke till 2 a.m. . . . We don’t have happy hours. It’s family dining. We’re not in the bar business.

Q: When is creativity a curse?
A: I guess, if I didn’t control it. I’m always trying to improve things. Sometimes it’s not worth the time or effort. I’ve done silly things like improve after-shave lotion. I’d buy different bottles and mix stuff together. Once I bought a Ford Explorer but it had too much chrome. So I had it all blacked out and put a cattle guard on the front. Now I see those everywhere.

Q: So, you’ve been ahead of the times?
A: I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus but I have a typical taste . . . I don’t fool around with cologne or cars anymore. I take a very scientific approach: I make a synopsis, I know demographics and I always have an innate sense of where we’re going. I used real chinked logs to build my restaurants (Mariano’s and La Hacienda Ranch) and now that’s a trend in Dallas. To be successful you have to be truly unique and different.

Q: Kindest thing ever said to you?

A: My 21-year-old nephew, Alexis, told me I was a great role model and that he feels blessed to be my nephew. He’s learned about integrity and hard work. We have no children but he’s like a son to us.

Q: Biggest family brawl or lover’s quarrel you’ve witnessed in your restaurants?
A: (Laughs) It was my first restaurant . . . This man and wife had had a big quarrel and weren’t speaking. He liked nachos but couldn’t take jalapeno peppers, so he was silently moving them to the side of his plate. His wife, who didn’t know Mexican food, said, “If you’re not eating your okra, may I eat it?” He didn’t say a word. She took a mouthful, gritted her teeth and said, “I think they’re great.”

Q: Do wealthy people go to heaven?
A: Some of the nicest people I know are wealthy people: kind, considerate, helpful. It’s true, some are just cold-blooded money grabbers. But there’s no economic distinction for people like that.

Q: Greatest obstacle to your success and how you overcame it?
A: Every bank I’ve ever gone to for money always says, essentially, the same thing, “We don’t loan money to restaurants; they’re high risks.”

Q: What do you most admire about your buddies Lee Trevino and Trini Lopez?
A: I identify a lot with them. I knew them before they made it big. I admire their work ethic and perseverance. They wanted to change Trini’s name. They said no one would buy a Mexican’s records. He said, “I’m sorry. That’s my name.” You’d have to know how polite and shy he is and how hard that was to say. Lee Trevino is a good friend. To this day I can call and tell him I’m struggling with my golf and the next day we’re out there and he’s giving me free instructions and driving my cart for me. But I still sing like Lee and golf like Trini.

Q: You made it big in a rock band as a teen. Do you ever serenade your wife on guitar to atone for golfing your brains out?
A: I did last night.

Q: What were the challenges/advantages of returning to high school after dropping out, and did you graduate?
A: I have a two-year degree from El Centro College. At my 10-year reunion I was named “outstanding alumnus.” I had dropped out in 10th grade and it was probably the worst day in my father’s life. He never went to one day of school. He didn’t want me to go into the restaurant business. He wanted me to be a doctor or a senator. But when I got that award that sort of made it up to him.

Q: How do you give back to the community?
A: I give motivational speeches at Southern Methodist University to everyone from kids to master’s students.

Q: Contrast living in Dallas, supposedly home of the first shopping center and microchip, to Pebble Beach?
A: I enjoy the slower pace and rhythm here. It allows you to reinvent yourself . . . with the windows open and no air conditioning, it’s nostalgic and primordial. I love it.

Universal Update: Mariano’s frozen-margarita machine was inducted into The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., in October 2005. His recent comments to me? “How’s this for a rags-to-riches story: from Little Mexico to Pebble Beach,” he said from his Pebble Beach estate.



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