Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hardworking and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.
From a small town in El Salvador to the metropolis that is Houston, Texas, Antonio “Geronimo” Villalobos never imagined he’d be a successful business owner of two popular Montrose destinations: Etro Lounge and Campesino Coffee House.
“I never thought about running my own business until I worked at coffee shops in the early 90s,” he says. “I remember thinking: This is something I’d love to do one day.”
For those familiar with Houston’s early 90s coffee culture, Villalobos began crafting the art of early morning brews at Brother’s Coffee turned Diedrich Coffee, and even Starbucks, before slinging cocktails at now nostalgic night clubs like Lava Lounge, M Bar and Club Spy.
But Villalobos’s journey to living the American Dream started long before today’s successes – and far south in a war-torn country.
“We were forced to leave under the threat of death,” Villalobos, now 45, recounts fleeing his hometown of El Transito for the US, illegally with his family when he was just eight-years-old. “We still don’t know why. Both of my parents were teachers, so we can speculate that’s why.” It was the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War. Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated. More soldiers took over the streets, and Villalobos recalls “seeing ugly things” on his way to school. But life forever changed for Villalobos the night his family home was ransacked and both parents kidnapped; his father, senselessly shot and killed that night. The family fled days later with layers of clothes on their back and mom with her bible, “which she still has to this day,” Villalobos adds. “And so the journey began.”
The family settled in Southwest Houston where Villalobos grew into his teens and worked odd – and some fun – jobs. “My favorite job was working at a mom and pop video store down the street from where I lived.” I dropped out of high school, got my GED, worked at Kroger, Randall’s and helped my mom clean houses.” Not long after, Villalobos had another major turning point in his life when he met a woman name Karen Smith who introduced him to coffee culture and the quirky neighborhood that is Montrose. “I was a very angry kid. It got me into some bad stuff,” he says. “I saw where things were going, and it took the values my parents instilled in me – the love, the ability to think for myself – for me to realize is this what I want?” It was then when he chose to pursue his newfound passion for coffee.
“I’m not the smartest guy. I’m not the hardest working guy. I’m the guy from the ghetto neighborhood with a GED. But what I have is tenacity. I paid attention, I asked questions, and look what I did for myself.” Villalobos worked various jobs in the service industry after his time as a barista. “I love coffee, that’s how I got into bartending.” He worked catering gigs, worked as a barback, a sweeper, and then a bartender. The next life changing moment was meeting the general manager at Club Spy, Bob Diego, in 1999. “Spy taught me how to be fast. Sales needed to improve. Tips needed to improve. So I worked to bring them up – and keep my job.” Various bartending opportunities arose from at countless venues: Shadow Bar, Barcode, Sky Bar, Drink Houston, Crome, Warehouse Live – then Etro, where after a year of managing Etro Lounge for free, Villalobos worked out a payment plan to purchase it from the owner. “And the rest was history…”
During this journey, Villalobos was able to successfully gain US citizenship. “It was a bittersweet moment, thinking about the death of my dad.” He goes on, with a smile on his face, “But I remember my friends from Empire Cafe walked into Etro, waving flags and singing the National Anthem.”
Next year commemorates the 10th year of owning and operating the popular 80s and 90s dance lounge, Etro. And returning to his roots and passion for coffee, Villalobos recently celebrated the the two year anniversary of conceptualizing and creating Campesino Coffee House – the Montrose neighborhood cafe known for its Latin-inspired coffee drinks. Think: horchata lattes, cafe de hoya, cortaditos and the like.
When asked about the future, Villalobos is proud and excited to announce Campesino will have a second location sometime this year, “I was scared if Campesino’s concept was going to be well received. I know I think the drinks and concept is great. But if I can get people who are curious about new things and the Latin culture, I’m good.”
Looking to start your own business? Words of advice from Antonio Villalobos:
:: Somebody once said this to me: “If you want something you never had, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done.” It just stuck with me.
:: It’s going to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
:: Try not to judge yourself by the success of others.
:: Embrace discomfort.
:: Be as brutally honest with yourself, even when you don’t want to hear it.
:: Take action, be prepared. What scares people is the mountain of information that they don’t know. How do you do it? But I can’t forget the people that mentored me and gave advice. There were so many people along the way. Be open to people’s support.
And he adds for other American Dreamers: “I could never, ever get in the way of people wanting to come to this country and make something better for themselves. It’s easy to make misinformed judgements on other people’s lives you have no understanding of. El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.”