Abel Ramirez’s name has become ubiquitous in Pasadena. The 77-year-old restaurateur has become enmeshed in the city’s rich culinary landscape with three restaurants on Arcade Row in the heart of the Playhouse District, and has become a community leader, taking on roles with the Senior Center, the Pasadena Playhouse and the Tournament of Roses Association.
This year marks El Portal’s 25th anniversary, a milestone for any business owner in Pasadena, but especially remarkable for Ramirez, a Mexican-American immigrant who embodies the American Dream.
As a business owner, Ramirez’s son, Armando Ramirez, said his father is a product of a different era of business. His was driven by personal interactions, as opposed to online relationships, which Armando admits causes them to occasionally butt heads.
Nevertheless, Armando concedes that his father’s guidance and face-to-face persona has led El Portal to the last quarter-century of success. Where other eateries may share their customer’s food pictures on social media, Ramirez takes the “Cheers” approach and anoints barstools with plaques bearing the names of the most prominent patrons.
Armando said at the core of El Portal’s success is his father and his undying commitment to giving guests the best possible dining experience. It is that emphasis that Armando believes is his father’s best asset.
“I say to everybody, ‘He’s our best PR.’ Everyone knows Abel from not just the restaurant, but from all the things he is involved in.” Armando said.
A picture of Abel is on the menu at El Portal, and if you call on a weekday afternoon, there is a good chance that he will answer the phone.
If you go to Arcade Row you will likely see the septuagenarian clad in a business suit and shuffling between his three restaurants. He trusts that his restaurants are running properly, but he feels guilty being away from the action and enjoys celebrating milestones and everyday achievements with his customers.
Abel keeps a stash of mini piñatas to celebrate with young visitors, some of whom recall receiving them years ago. It’s that personal connection that has cemented Abel’s reputation in Pasadena.
“One of the biggest things he has taught us is to really get to know our customers and give them the best experience,” Armando said. “He has long emphasized the importance of making customers happy and ensuring they feel that they’ve had a good meal at a decent value.”
“I am not convinced that the new technology is the way to run a restaurant; I like being there, you see my face, I see you. That is what counts for me,” said Abel.
Abel said he and his son have reached an agreement to merge their management styles — Abel acts as the face of the business while his son takes on the new media marketing.
Abel adds that owning a restaurant has never been easy, but this moment in time is the most difficult time he has experienced.
“If anyone would ask me today to open a restaurant, my immediate answer would be to say ‘No, thank you,’” Abel said.
He attributes the level of difficulty to the sheer volume of competition in the area and the increasing cost of doing business in California.
Despite the high-costs and razor-thin margins, Abel said he is most proud of having a way to support his more than 60 employees, half he estimates to be full-time workers.
As a founding member of the Playhouse District Association, Abel Martinez took a stake in Colorado Boulevard and watched it evolve over the past quarter-century from his storefront. He said when he opened El Portal the area he is currently in was not the commerce destination it is today.
“Since then, this area of Pasadena is great. People come to us, we have the Pasadena Playhouse, we have the theaters, we have culture and commerce. It is a great area.” Abel said.
Abel admits there were a lot of lessons to learn over the years — the one he jokes about now is the downside of hiring his family members as he did when he first opened.
“We started with a lot of family. I learned that is the worst thing you could do because then you are not the boss and you have 18 bosses around you,” Abel said.
The menu has evolved since 1995. He said he has had to add more diversity to some of the menus to accommodate the increase in vegetarians and more health-conscious guests.
The El Portal family of restaurants is inescapable on Arcade Row. Between El Portal, Yahaira’s and Vanessa’s, every type of dining is offered, the latter two named after his granddaughters.
Each eatery takes on a different style, from pastries and coffee at Vanessa’s to brunch at Yahaira’s or a full dinner at El Portal.
Catering has given Abel an avenue to grow even closer to his customers. He regularly caters graduation parties and weddings of the children of regulars, many of whom he watched grow into adulthood.
Abel said he has no interest in stepping away from Arcade Row anytime soon, though he acknowledges someday his son will step into running the entire operation.
“We have so many guests who are extended family. We don’t see them as customers. We know their lives,” Abel said. “I am very lucky.”