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Talkin’ a Mouthful

Don’t call Danny Trejo a movie star. Instead, he prefers to be known as a working actor — and since opening his restaurant chain Trejo’s Tacos in 2016, a business owner. Trejo owns five restaurants and a donut shop in the Los Angeles area, including one location in Woodland Hills that opened last year. He grew up in Echo Park and by the time he was a teenager had been in and out of prisons and juvenile centers for drugs and other offenses. He served time in San Quentin, where he cleaned up and befriended fellow inmate Eddie Bunker, who would go on to become a famous crime fiction writer. Years later, while Trejo was working as a drug counselor, Bunker helped him land a few Hollywood gigs, including roles as an extra on films and as a boxing trainer for actors. That humble start eventually led to a prolific acting career. Trejo has since appeared in hundreds of films including action blockbusters such as “Desperado,” “Con Air” and “Machete.” Recent acting jobs include a role on “Breaking Bad” and as spokesman for Sling TV. Trejo met up with the Business Journal at Chubby’s Automotive, nearby his home in Mission Hills, to talk about his experience as a restaurateur, his family and his love of working on classic cars. Shirt off, hunched under the hood of his blue 1956 Chevy Bel Air, Trejo was clearly in his element. “If I’m not on set, you can find me at Chubby’s,” he said. Question: How did you get into the restaurant business? Answer: My mom always wanted to have a restaurant. This was in the ’50s, and my dad was kind of like the Mexican Archie Bunker. Every time we would talk about starting a restaurant, he would say, “I’ve got an O’Keeffe and Merritt right here. I’ll cook you up a blue plate special!” He would nix the idea. But when we used to talk about opening a restaurant jokingly, my mom and I would always say, “We’ll call it Trejo’s Tacos.” How did it become a reality? After my parents passed away, I was doing a movie called “Bad Ass” with a producer named Ash (Shah), and he saw that I was a foodie. If I didn’t work out, I’d be 400 pounds. When I did “Bad Ass 3” with Danny Glover, Ash came to me with a business plan for a restaurant. Being a very smart man, I gave the plan to my agent Gloria and my secretary Mary – because every smart man has at least two women behind him. They both agreed. They said, “You can’t go wrong. This is the first business plan that somebody gave you where they’re not asking for $500,000 upfront.” Title: Owner Company: Trejo’s Tacos Born: 1944, Los Angeles Education: GED Certification Personal: Three children, two stepchildren MOST ADMIRED PEOPLE: Edward Bunker, author and screenwriter; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, actor Hobbies: Classic cars, L.A. sports teams Where did you open your first location? We opened the first restaurant on La Brea (Avenue) called Trejo’s Tacos, and it killed. It became like Pink’s (Hot Dogs). There were lines around the block. One Saturday, this bicycle club from Marina del Rey showed up. And then these bikers from Orange County heard about it. So, the next weekend, we had 50 motorcycles and 50 bicycles — all spandex and leather — it was funny. It became a place that was always filled with people in it. And then? We opened the next one on Cahuenga (Boulevard) between Hollywood and Sunset (boulevards) and killed it. There used to be place next door called Big Wang’s that was a sports bar, but the food wasn’t that good. People used to buy food from us and then go to the sports bar. So, they closed, but we’re still there. Then we opened one at the Pasadena Playhouse and one at USC Village. Then everyone was asking to open one in the Valley. We found that location [in Woodland Hills] and thank God we did. It’s the perfect location and the people are great. What makes the restaurants successful? Everybody keeps asking me, “What’s your secret?” Good food! That’s all there is to it. Many of the celebrities that have opened up places think they can go on their name alone. You can’t. I visit our restaurants every week. And I send my friends to check out the food and the service and let me know. How involved are you with the menu? I’m very involved. I work with autistic kids, and I have two autistic stepkids. Doctors have said that kids with autism don’t do well with gluten. So, I said, “Let’s have a gluten-free menu.” And then naturally we added vegan and vegetarian choices because we’re in Los Angeles. You can still bite into a cow if you want to, so we’ve covered the whole space. And the biggest reason for that is because in the industry that I’m in, when we wrap a movie or a meeting and go get something to eat, somebody will say, “I’m vegan, so I’ll have a salad,” or “I can’t eat that.” We’ve got it all. What feedback have you received? I’ve had mothers come in with their families and thank me and say, “Now I don’t have to cook three meals. I’m a vegan, my husband eats meat and my children are autistic.” We also have such an obesity problem, especially in the Latino community. If you go by a school and you see 10 kids, three of them will be obese and two of them will be overweight. What we did was bring them good food that they’ll like and that they’ll eat. How did you decide to open your donut shop, Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts? There used to be a place called Donut Time that was very famous. It was in a movie called “Tangerine.” People came from all over the world to take pictures at the Donut Time because it was in that movie. When the building (at 6785 Santa Monica Blvd.) came up, Ash said let’s get it. And we got it and painted it bright pink. The first day, we opened at 8 a.m., and we literally ran out of donuts by 10 o’clock. There was a line around the block. Everybody from around the neighborhood started coming there to buy a couple dozen donuts to take them back home. What’s your secret for donuts? We started developing our own donuts like the Machete donut, the Abuelita donut and a pineapple fritter donut. The only problem with the pineapple fritter is if you eat two, you have to go to rehab. We also have the Lowrider donut and the OG donut. What have you learned about running a business? First of all, the product has to be number one. Number two: visibility. People want to see you. If your name is on it, people want to see you. If you think you can just put your name on it and leave, you’re crazy. One time, my secretary called and said, “This lady is coming in from Mississippi. She just graduated, and she wants you to be in her senior pictures. Will you be at one of your restaurants?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be at Hollywood.” And I met her there. That’s being approachable. I’m not just an owner; I’m a customer. I eat there all the time. Do you have any tips for other business owners? Like I said, having good food is number one – also making it affordable, visual and clean. The bathrooms have got to be clean. I can’t stand it when you go to a restaurant or a night club and the bathrooms aren’t clean. Is there anything about your background that helped you in business? Everybody knows where I came from and my redemption story. But it’s been so long; I’m not even that person anymore. I’m definitely a people person. Even on a movie set. On a set, I can’t stand to be in a trailer. It’s too much like a cell. How do you work for children with autism? I speak in juvenile halls. I met this one kid, and I knew he was autistic. I asked him what he was there for and he said, “I freaked out on my teacher.” I asked him why and he said, “She grabbed me. And then they called the police, and they grabbed me.” The worst thing you can do to an autistic kid is grab them. He was basically in juvenile hall for being autistic. That’s why we’re behind a big push to have training for the police. We know the police have to take control of a situation, but when you see an autistic kid walking back and forth, you can’t take control of that. If you do, he’s going to flip out. You need to walk with him and talk to him. There are different ways of dealing with that. What motivates you to help people? You’ve got to give it back, with the blessings that I’ve had. My cousin did 38 years in prison, and he just got into our support system. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about holding people up. How many kids do you have? I have three. I have my son Danny Boy, who fishes up in Lompoc; my daughter, Danielle; and my son Gilbert, who just wrote a film. It’s called “From a Son.” It’s the most tragically beautiful thing I’ve ever read. It’s about a son who overdoses and dies. When the son overdoses, the dad wakes up 200 miles away. It’s like Dante’s Inferno. The dad goes into his son’s own hell to try and find him. It’s really heavy. How has your family impacted your career? The biggest thing is to have a great support system. And to have people that aren’t just out for themselves or that are hanger-on-ers. Everybody that’s gone down has had too many hanger-on-ers. I’ve got people like Mario Castillo, who I met in San Quentin when I was doing a movie called “Blood In Blood Out.” He was an inmate. He actually says he was a “resident. He had a bay view. If you look in the dictionary for “Chicano Cholo Gangster,” it’s got his picture. When he got out, he looked me up. I saw he was staying clean, so I hired him to help dive me around. He has been with me for 20 years. What are your favorite classic cars? I’ve got a ’56 Chevy Bel Air and a ’65 Buick Riviera. Absolutely gorgeous. When I pull up in a show, they give me a prize right away. I have a ’36 Dodge Touring Sedan. Jay Leno’s people offered me about $80,000 for it, but I won’t sell it. There are only five of them registered in the United States. I have a ’42 Chevy Stylemaster, a ’61 Ford Econoline and a ’76 Cadillac Seville in mint condition. Where do you drive them? I love pulling up in Beverly Hills and everyone says, “Oh, we have one of those. It’s beautiful!” And then I hit the switch and it falls to the ground (with hydraulic pumps) and they say, “Those Mexicans, they’ll mess up everything.” Are you a big L.A. sports fan? The Rams! They’re going to be great this year. With (Ndamukong) Suh, they’re going to kill them. Do you think the Dodgers can make another run this year? Nobody’s going to beat the Yankees. They’ve got three guys who hit bombs. They’re going back to the Bronx Bombers. What projects are you working on? I started a record company called Trejo’s Music. I’ve got a new singer whose name is Tarah New. Her lifelong dream has been to make a record. She’s got a great voice, so I got her in the studio. Last night, she made a woman’s empowerment record. We’re going to start putting that out. We’re also going to be at the biggest car show in L.A. in July. Do you plan to expand the restaurants? We’re looking for new places in the Valley, but if we stretch out too much, we won’t be able to keep up the quality. As long as we’re close by, in the Valley or Orange County, then I can drive over there and make sure. I take all criticism seriously. If someone one tells me, “Man, the service was awful,” then I find out why. Do the employees know you? Oh, yeah. Every time I come in, two or three people will come wait on me. I tell them, “I hope you do this for everybody that walks in here!” Finally, who are some of the people you admire most? Eddie Bunker, one of my best friends, said the reason for Danny’s success is that everybody who works with him wants to work with him again. I never forgot that. He gave me the best advice I ever got. It’s about humility. He said, “Everybody can think you’re a movie star, but you can’t.” I asked him, “Why’s that, Eddie?” and he said, “Have you ever talked to a movie star? What do you think of them?” I said, “They’re jerks!” And that’s it. Every time I’d see a movie star walk away, everybody would say, “Look at that jerk.” So, I don’t ever want to be called a movie star. Call me a working actor. Anyone else? I talked to the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) at the premier of his new movie, and he’s a guy who has that humility. He’s one of the real big men — he’s huge — but he carries himself like he’s 150 pounds. And that’s the key.

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