How the Sandoval Brothers Challenged Chicago’s Reigning King of Mexican Cuisine


In a city where Mexican food is synonymous with one word -- Bayless -- how do you launch a competitive restaurant concept? For the Sandoval brothers, the key was finding a market void, tweaking their signature cuisine for the Chicago market and nailing the right price point. Alfredo, Felipe and Patricio have translated modern tacos into a thriving business, while balancing the challenges of a family partnership. The trio shares their experience of creating and growing the Mercadito brand and also why Chicago offers the most opportunity.

How did you develop the concept for Mercadito and how have you tailored it to Chicago, New York and Miami?

Patricio Sandoval: The concept was developed by our experiences growing up in the markets in Mexico and also by working in the industry and understanding what the market was lacking for Mexican food at the time. When we opened in New York, no one else was doing tacos that were modern, yet approachable, but people responded to it.

Alfredo Sandoval: The idea of Mercadito also grew from our desire to do something different with Mexican cuisine and set the trend. When we opened Mercadito in 2004 in New York, everyone was doing high-end Mexican food, and we came in with the exact opposite concept: the approachable and fun street food of tacos in a nice restaurant setting. We showed that tacos could be elevated and enjoyed somewhere other than a hole in the wall. Then, you really saw the whole industry move over to the trend of downscaled concepts and sharing menus, so we were right on track. We feel our concept is very mainstream -- there isn't much on the menu that most wouldn't enjoy -- so it was important for us to create a menu that would have mass appeal. When it comes to our flavors and texture, we put a foodie spin to things, but it's approachable for all. We do make small adjustments for pricing and portion size and there are a few menu items that might change to reflect the palates of that market.

Felipe Sandoval: While we maintain the same focus on elevating traditions of Mexican food, we've definitely adjusted to every market. We've made healthier dishes in the warmer climates like Miami, while making comforting versions of our food here in Chicago.

What impact did your father’s restaurant experience have on your careers?

Alfredo Sandoval: Huge. I grew up in restaurants since I was a little kid and learned everything I know about the business side of the restaurant from my dad. He had one restaurant in his 30-year career, but he paid attention to every detail to make it perfect. Heck, he even knew how many toothpicks people took at the end of the night. He taught me the importance of great hospitality, great food, great drinks and great service, but I think I earned a Ph.D. on how to run a business that's profitable from my father.

Patricio Sandoval: It had a huge impact. I learned about paying attention to the small details, learned consistency is the key to a successful restaurant, and learned that it’s a 24-hour, 365-day business that has to be watched at all times.

What are the advantages and downsides of working with family members? How do you deal with challenges?

Felipe Sandoval: Mixing work and family is not easy. It is great because you work with people you trust, but since we’re family, we put everything out there so there are always disagreements here and there.

Patricio Sandoval: We all know our individual roles. I worry about the menu and Felipe and Alfredo diligently watch the numbers so we know what works and adjust accordingly when needed. You just have to communicate constantly and be 100 percent honest and upfront to make that work.

Alfredo Sandoval: Anyone that tells you it’s easy is lying to you. As managing partner for the group, I've had to take a role of leading the charge on the business front, and sometimes it's hard to separate business and family. It's just human nature, but we have to balance every day of being both family and business partners. That said, it definitely has its rewards. What better than to have your family working together to build a group and make it successful? To know that we all care and we're not in it alone makes it extremely rewarding to be successful together.

After years of working together in the restaurant industry, how do you keep your partnership from becoming stagnant?

Felipe Sandoval: We have been busy creating and opening new concepts and keep ourselves busy with new challenges.

Alfredo Sandoval: I think one thing that is really important is the people that we surround ourselves with. Our partners at Mercadito Hospitality own a piece of any project that we might be working on, so I think that breeds an environment for new ideas. I'm extremely democratic in my management approach, and we talk through everything from the concept to the location to the menu and drinks as a team. We truly value everyone's opinion and our end result is a compilation of everyone's ideas. We have to stay open to new ideas, which I think allows everyone to get excited and be proud of what we are doing.

If you could offer aspiring entrepreneurs one piece of advice, what would it be?

Alfredo Sandoval: No idea is a bad idea and don't ever give up: You never know when things will come together. If you work harder than everyone else and have good ideas and execute them, things will end in success. Even if they don't go as you first envisioned them, don't give up and things will eventually come around. Good ideas and good intentions don't always immediately translate into the results that you want, but perseverance pays off.

Patricio Sandoval: To make sure that they understand and have the knowledge of what it takes to open a business and to understand the market.

Felipe Sandoval: Get your numbers straight and be ready to put in the hours.

What is the long-term goal for Mercadito Hospitality?

Felipe Sandoval: We have expanded our brand beyond the Mercadito concept, but with the same environment where we know guests will enjoy amazing food, interesting cocktails and have a great time. We hope to keep creating new and exciting concepts all over the U.S.

Patricio Sandoval: Keep growing and to create different concepts within the Mercadito model.

Alfredo Sandoval: We are at a really good place right now where we are defining our path for the future and sticking with it. New opportunities come every day, but we are being smart about our projects. While we may expand further beyond Chicago, this city is very exciting for me right now. Our dining scene has grown so much in the past few years, but I think there is even more to be done in many different ways, even beyond our current concepts. I called New York home for 12 years, but this is where I want to see the Mercadito Hospitality brand grow even more.

Rachel Gillman has an insatiable appetite for dining out and an obsession with the restaurant industry. She's also fascinated by entrepreneurs and enjoys uncovering the story behind building a business from scratch. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelGillman.

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