hey sat huddled around a cellphone, gesturing at a screen-sized sketch of a kitchen line and weighing aloud the pros and cons of where the Vulcan range ought to go. Two design guys who could be mistaken for ex-NFLers explained their thinking. The clean-cut kitchen manager who hires and trains new cooks listened intently, while the head of human resources settled herself nearby, lending calm, quiet support. There was the son, natty in a crisp button-down, skinny tie and matching slacks and vest.
And there was the father.
It was 8:15 and the pre-boarding lounge of the Santa Ana hanger was just waking up, but the Javier’s team had long since punched in. The minute they got the nod from the pilot, they hightailed it over to the company’s sleek, logoed executive jet. A quick hour later they were being whisked off the Las Vegas tarmac in twin black Escalades that made a beeline to the porte cochère of the Aria resort. There was no time to waste. Business is business, and Javier and his guys aren’t fooling around.
What began as a gutsy mid-1990s experiment in downtown Laguna Beach — one that by any measure should have struggled alongside the other coastal wannabes — caught on like wildfire and grew into what today is one of Orange County’s most recognized brands. Five full-scale Javier’s restaurants dot the West Coast landscape: Newport Beach, Irvine Spectrum, Century City and Las Vegas, with La Jolla about to cut the ribbon. To what do we owe this crazy success? It has to be the journey.
Sosa was 18 in 1969 when he acceded to his mother’s request and set off to find work to support the family. “This was supposed to be a three- or four-month thing,” he said. “I was going to be a professional soccer player, and I had a girlfriend at home in Tijuana.” He landed in Laguna Beach and hired on at a Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Flats. “On my first day as a dishwasher, I turned around and saw this beautiful girl working the line as a cook. She was a lady, and that changed everything.”
Sosa stayed, and married the love of his life. He was promoted to cook, then to assistant manager and eventually to general manager of all three Tortilla Flats restaurants. (“When my future mother-in-law asked me how I intended to support her daughter, I said, ‘I’m not going to be a dishwasher forever.’”)
For 24 years he worked day and night, learning the business from top to bottom and cementing lifelong bonds with men and women who, like him, had set their sights on realizing the American dream. “By the end I was surrounded by a lot of friends,” he said. When he was unceremoniously let go by the owners of the chain, it was these friends who would form the underpinnings of Javier’s success.
Being fired felt to Sosa like the worst thing that could possibly happen. But though he and his wife lost their car, their new home, their dignity and virtually all of their savings, the couple’s passion for their craft burned bright. With financial help and moral encouragement from Mark Post, his longtime friend and former employee (“He was a lousy waiter, and a troublemaker”), Sosa resolved to make those lemons into lemonade.
It took a little more than two years, but on April 10, 1995, the original Javier’s was born. “When we signed the papers to open Laguna,” said Sosa, “the first thing I did was run to my house and call my mother.” Javier’s Laguna Beach would become a mainstay of the town for more than 10 years. One of Sosa’s problems at the time was that he knew too many people and they all wanted to work for him. “We were a little place and I wasn’t even sure we’d make money,” he said. “So we hired the people that I thought would have the hardest time finding work: the oldest ones.” He reels them off today as if they were in the next room: Rafael and Eloy, who were already in their 70s. Joaquin, Pepe, Tony, Jaime, Ascensión and, posthumously, the beloved Octavio and Josefina.
“In 1980 I invented Taco Tuesday! Tuesday was the slowest day of the week, so we put tacos on the bar for 50 cents. We got busier and busier and it became a thing. I have noticed that sushi places, French and Italian restaurants, steakhouses, are always offering a touch of Mexican. I heard it was even mentioned in the movies. Now my granddaughter talks about it all the time.” —JAVIER SOSA
Javier’s Laguna was followed by Javier’s Irvine, which led to Javier’s Crystal Cove, a generous indoor-outdoor venue that seats a surprising 350 customers and is managed by Sosa’s son Javier, who is known as Junior. The Las Vegas Aria outlet opened in 2012, while Century City’s location, run by son Omar, just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Though the locations may be diverse, Sosa is quick to point out that they all march to the same beat.
“We’re not going to be the best Mexican restaurant,” he tells his staff. “We’re going to be the best restaurant, period, from the service to the personality, the ambiance, the culture. I want customers to walk out of here feeling that they had an experience.”
“We’re not going to be the best Mexican restaurant. We’re going to be the best restaurant, period.” — JAVIER SOSA
More than anything, Sosa takes immense pride in his employees, noting that the restaurants hardly ever fire anyone and always promote from within.
“Every manager started out on cleanup duty,” he said. He nodded toward a bustling waiter. “That gentleman started out as a dishwasher, and I can tell you that that kid has what it takes to become one day a manager.”
And the food, the food. Said Sosa: “We serve Mexican food. Our food is not fusion Mexican. We have no celebrity chef. It’s the food we eat in our homes, but using the best ingredients you can get.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this success. And I have Orange County to thank. It’s the world for us. The people here have been so loyal and so good to us. Thank God. I have no complaints.”
I love to be with my grandkids. Every time I open a restaurant, I take all of them with me. We stay for two weeks, because I want them to be with me, be a part of what we do. And they make me happy. Some people have something that relaxes them. I’m relaxed when I’m with the kids.