FEATURE: Family-owned restaurant flourishes

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By Angie Escalante

Mexican restaurant El Patrón, built in 1904 by the historical Union Pacific Railroad Depot, stands out not only because of its rich culture but because of the familial bond that runs throughout the place and its community.

With a lifetime of experience in the service industry, support from family and love for people, owner Shawna Rider bought El Patrón in 2019.

Rider strives to make the restaurant a place for her team to feel at home and loved, something she didn’t always experience in her line of work.

“I always said if I ever own a restaurant, I’m gonna make sure my employees are taken care of,” she said.

Rider’s ownership had just begun at El Patrón when the pandemic hit. Much to their benefit, two regular patrons had helped contract the restaurant under a program the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had launched.

Rider and six others cooked three meals a day, seven days a week straight out of the restaurant for about a hundred senior citizens during the pandemic. 

The restaurant is family owned and oriented. Many of the staff are relatives of the owner or longtime friends.

“My team, I don’t call them my employees. They don’t call each other co-workers. We call each other family,” Rider said. “My staff calls me ‘Mama.’ We celebrate together, we cry together, we laugh together and we have fun together.”

A lot of her support came from her parents. Rider lost her mom last January and took some time off to grieve.

Though she physically distanced herself she was never truly alone. Rider shared that her team checked up on her constantly by messaging her and sending food and flowers.

“One of the things that my mom always told us is that if you don’t have a family, doesn’t matter if they’re blood or not, you really don’t have anything,” Rider said.

El Patrón grows every day. So much so that Rider purchased a second location in Murrieta where they will be joining the Chamber of Commerce.

Rider wants a place for everyone to enjoy. There will be a cantina that will stay open a little later than the family-friendly dining area.

They were able to secure the location through one of El Patrón’s regular patrons who is a realtor and the contractor is none other than Rider’s dad.

Rider shared that it’s a little bittersweet leaving the Riverside location and focusing most of her time in Murrieta. Part of what went into the location decision was to remain close enough to both of her families.

She assures that she is one call away and cannot wait for the El Patrón family to grow.

“I think for (my staff), just know that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how far away I am from that location,” she said. “If I’m working here, then I’m still going to be available for them anytime they need me.” 

Melissa Hernandez, the current assistant manager who was with Rider when El Patrón was bought, will be in charge of the Riverside location.

Hernandez started her journey through the service industry only with the intention to provide for her kids.

As a single mom of two going through a divorce, she did not see this as a longtime career until 2018 when she went to work at the now-closed Mission Tobacco Lounge in downtown Riverside. Rider was her general manager there and encouraged her to continue.

“I wanted to grow. I wanted to learn,” Hernandez said. “My bartending took a turn to where I wanted to make it into a career, something that I could be a part of.”

With Rider focusing on the Murrieta location and part of the staff transferring over, Hernandez looks forward to making the transition smooth. She wants to give back to the staff as much as possible to thank them for their hard work.

Christopher Ramirez, Rider’s adopted son and current general manager in Riverside, will be transferring over to run the Murrieta location.

Though Ramirez has known Rider for nearly 20 years, he began working in El Patrón when her mom passed to help alleviate the stress.

For someone who lives in Temecula, managing the Riverside location has not been easy. Working 10-hour days with an hour-long commute back home has him spending a lot of time out of the house. He said he can’t wait to officially transfer over to Murrieta to better balance work and family

Ramirez firmly believes the second location will thrive.

“The community and the city that we choose, whether it be Riverside or Murrieta, to open up a business we (have to) embrace them as much as they embrace us,” Ramirez said. “I have plans to do school fundraisers, food drives and all types of stuff that will benefit the community and also get the El Patrón name out there as a positive.”

The owner and both managers in charge know what it’s like to be employees at a restaurant that didn’t look out for them. All three aim to make El Patrón a place to feel appreciated by customers and workers alike.

“A dishwasher is just as important as the head chef,” Ramirez said. “I have never managed in a way where I let my employees think I am better than them. I don’t like that. That’s not how Shawna trained me and that’s not how I operate.”

The restaurant couldn’t have made it to where it’s now without the love and support of people who repeatedly come back.

“One of the big things we have here at El Patrón is that we don’t have customers, we have guests,” Hernandez said. “We want everyone to feel they’re family when they walk in the building.” 

“I’m a very blessed woman,” Rider said. “I come from a very strong Christian family and I believe God puts things in your path and in your life for a reason.”

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