Pride reverberates through the phone as Joel, owner of Primo’s Mexican Grill, recalls the story of his grandfather’s legacy as the first Mexican to open shop in BC.
His grandfather, Primo Villanueva, was a member of the UCLA football team originally from Calexico, California. Primo was drafted by the BC Lions where he became the first Mexican to join the CFL. Following his retirement from football, Primo opened up Primo’s Mexican Grill in South Granville, launching British Columbia’s first Mexican restaurant.
“He had to cater to all sorts of people,” says Joel “so he had chicken sandwiches and spaghetti and steak and pizza bread, all sorts of stuff because people weren’t too sure about Mexican food at the time.”
Primo ran the restaurant for over 25 years, during which time he also opened Primo’s Factory, introducing chips and salsa delivery to Safeway grocery stores across BC. “My dad was the delivery driver for my grandfather’s retail delivery truck, and my mother worked at the restaurant, and that’s how they met,” explains Joel.
Following his retirement from foodservice, the restaurant fell to Joel’s parents who ran it for 25 years before selling it to their two sons, third-generation restaurateurs. After closing the restaurant temporarily to raise their kids outside the city, Joel took full ownership with his wife, Jaclynn, and together they decided to relocate the original Primo’s Mexican Grill to a new location in White Rock, BC.
The Primo’s of Today
Today, the restaurant is gathering momentum as Joel and Jaclynn work hard to win over locals in a new part of town. And they’re doing so by doing what they do best, serving up delicious, authentic Mexican cuisine.
The new Primo’s may have shifted locations, but everything else has more or less been left unchanged. Loyal customers making the 45-minute drive from Vancouver will still find the food they’ve always loved including, the original enchilada sauce, what Jaclynn refers to as the heart and soul of the restaurant. Moreover, they’ll feel right at home, surrounded by football trophies lining the bar, the original menu mounted on the wall next to black and white photos and an old bowling T-Shirt from days gone by.
New customers will be pleased to find the appeal of a family-owned business blended with on-trend additions, including gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan food options, refillable salsa growlers, 45 types of tequila and 15 mezcals which make up the restaurant’s new craft margarita menu.
Needless to say, moving locations meant that Joel and his team have had to come up with a few ways to attract some attention. New clientele make up a large part of Primo’s business, inspiring Joel to start what’s now known as “Chef’s Table.”
The idea came to him when a customer gifted Joel and Jaclynn a hand-carved wooden table with the Primo’s logo blazed into its core. Seating between 8-10 people, the Chef’s Table can be reserved ahead of time. Customers essentially show up and enjoy what Chef decides is on the menu. “They don’t get menus,” says Joel. Jaclynn adds, “Joel basically asks if there are any allergies or dislikes and then serves it up family style!”
For Joel, this provides the opportunity to let people try menu items they might not otherwise order. “I find when people don’t know what’s on the menu, they stay away from it. My family’s recipes are the best stuff on the menu and when they try it, they’re blown away.” For this reason, Joel will often circulate the restaurant offering customers new plates to try, free of charge. It’s this desire to connect with customers that has kept Primo’s in business for 60 years.
60 Years Later and Better than Ever
While gaining the trust of White Rock residents is high on the agenda, many of Primo’s clientele are loyal customers who have been enjoying authentic Mexican cuisine since Joel was a small boy. Customers who used to dine at the original Primo’s are now coming back with children and grandchildren of their own, celebrating milestones and continuing to play an important part in the Primo’s legacy.
When it comes to offering up advice for other restaurant owners, Joel is quick to point out that success starts and ends with a passion for what you do, and the food you make. “I have so much passion for Primo’s and the food we create. I love talking to every single table about the story and I think it’s very important that people know about it.”
Joel also points out the need for consistency. “Make good food and stick with it,” he says, while Jaclynn adds that aspiring restaurateurs can’t be afraid to take advice from other people.
When asked to what they attribute their own success as a long-standing family business, both Joel and Jaclynn pointed to the staff as invaluable members of the Primo’s legacy. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here,” says Jaclynn. “You have to surround yourself with the right people. Success is for everyone, together. We’re all going for the same prize, you know? It’s to make people happy,” adds Joel. According to the couple, whether you’re a staff member, a regular or a new customer, everyone at Primo’s is considered family.
The Primo’s of Tomorrow
With 60 years under its belt, Primo’s remains a symbol of Mexican influence in the Canadian foodservice industry. Staying true to their roots while embracing changes within the industry, Joel and Jaclynn insist that the Primo’s experience speaks for itself and has been doing so since the 1950s, with no end in sight.
Rooted in authenticity, passion and a commitment to serving up the best food possible, Primo’s now looks forward to the next 60 years of success. With two boys of their own, Joel and Jaclynn say that when the time comes, their kids will have the option to take over as fourth-generation restaurant owners, if that’s the path they choose to follow. After all, 14-hour days are not for the faint of heart, but if passion is genetic, they’ll have no problem at all filling some very big shoes.