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El Tipico Restaurant marks 50th Anniversary and 87th birthday of cofounder Ezekiel Villa

By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent


El Tipico Restaurant has survived in the same location as a family-owned neighborhood restaurant for fifty years, so the daughter of its founders will mark a special golden anniversary month in March.


“It’s just been a true blessing and it’s a humbling effect. There’s nothing prideful about turning 50. It is absolutely humbling,” said Dina Villa, El Tipico’s owner, as she started to choke up and get teary-eyed. “To see the loyalty of so many people and the love and the stories they have about my mother and my father and my brother, it’s been really nice.”

¡Feliz Cumpleaños Señor Ezekiel Villa,
31 de marzo!


Reaching a milestone like this in the restaurant business is no easy feat. Hundreds of Toledo restaurants have opened and closed over five decades, so Ms. Villa knows just how lucky her family is to have survived so long.


“How do I feel? Extremely grateful, not only to the community, to my parents who are the founders of the restaurant, but to God for keeping us going all these years,” she said. “We’ve gone through recessions, we’ve gone through good times, bad times and we’re still here.”


So what is her proudest achievement in 50 years of the restaurant business?


“I think the fact that we’ve maintained the integrity of the quality of our food,” she said. “My mother was a farm girl. It was extremely important to her that our food showed not only our heritage to the community. Mexican food has a stigma that it has to be something fast and cheap and low quality. That is not the case at all. She always made sure that all our food was always made fresh with the best quality ingredients.”


Ms. Villa lamented that over the past 15 years, the U.S. food system has “drastically changed, with the use of more chemicals and processed food.” At the same time, according to Ms. Villa, El Tipico has made a transition to being not only fresh, but organic and GMO-free.


“We do our absolute best to be as chemical free as possible in order to give the absolute best quality food we can to our patrons,” she said.


Ms. Villa’s late mother Consuelo started growing vegetables in her own garden to use in the restaurant 45 years ago—a tradition that continues today at the back of the El Tipico property. At one time, her mother had gardens on four lots throughout the neighborhood. There are still several fruit trees planted by her mom outside the restaurant—black cherry, peaches, apricots, apples, and yellow plums. The garden contains various peppers, herbs, and spices.


“We share that with our community here at the restaurant, with our patrons,” she said. “I can remember looking out the window with pride at my mother sharing bell peppers, tomatoes, and whatever she was picking that morning with the customers. That brings them joy and to this day, we use it almost for educational purposes for people who never had a garden and don’t know where this food comes from, particularly kids. That’s a good feeling.”


Ms. Villa stated she particularly still enjoys the “creative side of cooking the food.” Her late mom’s presence can still be felt in that effort, when “someone is happy with their plate of food.”


“Sharing our heritage, sharing that food with them, that I know is nutritious for them as well, is a really good feeling,” she said, despite the 12 to 15-hour days and thinking about the operation on a day off and all the paperwork. “Even when I think I can’t do this anymore, all it takes is a customer to be happy and start telling us their memories. You hear those stories and you know you just have to keep going.”


There are generations of families who have been customers all 50 years and new people who discover the restaurant every week, according to Ms. Villa, who has stayed steadfast in the vision of her parents to keep it a family-friendly, neighborhood restaurant. She called El Tipico the “only fresh and organic Mexican restaurant in Ohio.”


That designation has attracted people with food allergies or who have medical conditions which require them to find meals that are gluten-free or chemical-free. Word of mouth has led people to drive long distances for that kind of dining experience: “clean, healthy food that has flavor to it.”


Her parents relied more on repeat customers than advertising to sustain the restaurant over five decades. Ms. Villa uses social media, including Facebook and Instagram to communicate with faithful and new customers alike, a modern twist on word-of-mouth which has proven helpful.


¡Feliz Cumpleaños Señor Ezekiel Villa, 31 de marzo!


Patrons are being asked to write down or videotape their favorite memories of the restaurant. The top five submissions will be chosen to receive a taco bar for 20 people on March 31, which is her father Ezekiel’s 87th birthday. Ms. Villa wants to pay homage to the man who worked the front of the house as a waiter in the evenings for so many years, despite working a full-time military day job.


“He is the youngest man to have ever entered, served, and retired from the United States Air Force,” she noted. “He was 14 years old, just a child.”


Ms. Villa’s grandparents were migrant workers who hailed from Texas. Their three sons got tired of working the fields, so the older two brothers went to take an Army exam in 1948. Ezekiel tagged along, but sat in the back of the exam room and was inadvertently handed a test, too.


“My dad was goofing around and opened it up and started taking the test,” she recalled.


After the tests were graded, according to Ms. Villa, her father was the only one in the room who had passed. He scored high enough on the exam; he got to choose which branch of military service he wanted. Her father chose the Army Air Corps, precursor to the US Air Force.


“It was a snowball effect. He had no idea this was going to happen,” she said. “He didn’t mean to lie his way in. When asked how many years of schooling he had, he held up four fingers. The sergeant assumed he meant four years of high school, not the fourth grade. After that, he told some very colorful stories in order to get in. When he was 18, he went and told them the truth because he was up for a promotion and he knew they would do a further background check.”


His superior officers threatened to court-martial him, but sent him to serve in Korea during the war instead. During a battle with the Chinese, he got shot and the opposing forces stripped him of everything except his pants—including his dog tags and I.D.—and severely beat him. He was left severely swollen and unrecognizable.


As Ms. Villa tells it, U.S. troops mistook him for a prisoner of war and took him with them.


“That saved my father’s life. Otherwise, they probably would have killed him,” she said. “He was a POW on the American side for a couple of days, because they didn’t know he was one of them. I believe this was all due to his mother, at home on her knees, praying for his safety.”


Ezekiel later returned stateside to finish his military career in a downtown Toledo office. His wife Consuelo decided she wanted to open a small Mexican restaurant. So from the age of two,

Ms. Villa literally grew up in the South Avenue restaurant, which started in one-half of its current location in 1968 as a taquería, renting what was previously a hot dog stand. The other half of the storefront housed a dry cleaner.


Ms. Villa’s parents had wanted to move back to Texas at one point after Ezekiel retired, but decided to stay in Toledo when he instead attended Bible College and entered the ministry. The restaurant took off, using the recipes Consuelo had developed from her family, as well as once working in restaurants in her Texas youth.


Good fortune smiled on the couple, when Toledo Blade food editor Mary Alice Powell did a newspaper review of the little taquería. Curious people started to line up outside to sample some of Consuelo’s cooking. The founder of Hickory Farms, Richard Ransom, according to Ms. Villa, also frequented the restaurant, bringing movers and shakers from the business world with him.


Around 1970, the restaurant had seen enough success that the Villas decided to rent out the other side of the building. By then, the dry cleaner was gone, replaced by a small gift shop. The couple converted it into a Mexican-themed gift shop to accompany the restaurant. The building also had a back room where their daughter spent her formative years while they worked.


“They had a pool table in there and I can recall riding my tricycle around the pool table and taking my naps on a sofa,” recalled Ms. Villa. Eventually, a wall got knocked down, so the gift shop and back room could be converted into a dining room for the restaurant.


To supplement their income during the slow summer season, Consuelo hit the road and cooked her Mexican recipes at county fairs and festivals across the region. That practice continued for four decades. But that move also spread the reputation of the restaurant to out-of-towners.


“She was a smart businesswoman and she knew that that was what would get us through,” said Ms. Villa.


The biggest change at El Tipico over the years came in 2012, when the restaurant closed for nine months for a complete remodel. Faithful customers raced right back when it reopened.


“We had people waiting over two hours just to get into the restaurant,” said Ms. Villa. “They were outside, sitting in lawn chairs, waiting to come in. It was fantastic. People were great. I was out there apologizing. We were running out of food. They were waiting forever. We weren’t expecting that type of explosion of people coming out to eat. I remember them saying ‘Hey, we’ve waited nine months. What’s two more hours?’”


El Tipico is celebrating its golden anniversary in a variety of other ways throughout March, including an invitation-only, private open house on Sunday, March 11, 2 to 5 p.m. Toledo City Council will present a proclamation marking the milestone, along with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. 50 people also will be selected throughout March to order off the original 1968 menu.


“That is a huge difference. We’re talking a Mexican platter for three or four dollars,” she said. “It’s going to be fun. Something that goes for $14 today cost three dollars back then. We’ll also have giveaways and have some fun.”


So what does the future hold for El Tipico? Ms. Villa said that is “in God’s hands.”


“We said after 50 years, we would sit down and talk and make some decisions,” she said. “Is it time to sell? Is it time to retire? Or do we keep going? That decision will be made sometime this year.”


Copyright © 1989 to 2018 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 03/13/18 20:17:50 -0800.




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