Interview by Meghann Bridgeman
Photos by Ambre Amari
Jorge, you have a long culinary legacy. How did you and your family get started? Did you always know you wanted to be in the restaurant business?
We started in Mexico. My best friend and I worked under my brother, who worked in a couple of different restaurants. We enjoyed it and in 1996 the four brothers; Jose, Guillermo, Alex, and me, opened our first restaurant in Mexico. We were so young and had so much fun but weren’t experts in business. It was a great learning experience. And most importantly, we walked away with the feeling that this is something we really liked to do and really wanted to do.
Loving the restaurant industry was a surprise actually. I started my career at a steel company in Mexico and moved into work with the local newspaper. And who knows, maybe the move here and into the industry were destiny.
Speaking of the move here… what are your warmest memories of home and how was the transition to Birmingham?
For me, Guadalajara is the most beautiful city in Mexico. And that’s where my experience of food came from. My parents were great about exposing us to unique places and cuisines. We even went on a health food kick and eventually found our way to a small border town where I learned about Tex Mex and how different it was from traditional Mexican cuisine.
The move to Birmingham has been great. There is so much natural beauty here with plenty of trees and water. I’d say the only part of the landscape I miss is the big mountains of Guadalajara. Some of my colleagues in northern cities tease about Birmingham and assume we are lacking something. I don’t think so. Birmingham is a great place, and once people make their way here, they tend to agree.
I totally agree! Birmingham does surprise people and is often undervalued nationally. There is a strong sense of community here and I think one example of that is the successful revival of Sol Y Luna during a global pandemic. How did you brave the storm?
It’s really hard to measure, but I’ll tell you one thing, we were blessed to have the support of the community. We opened on February 10 and closed on March 16. It’s definitely been a learning experience. We were creative. We set up a smaller store selling toilet paper, orange juice and eggs. We focused on to-go orders until we could open back up at 50% occupancy. Cinco de Mayo always draws a bigger crowd, and we weren’t sure what would happen in 2020, but it was great! We had a lot of people show up and happily drink margaritas while they waited up to two hours for food.
Since then, we’ve just stayed focus on making people feel safe and comfortable here. We wear masks and have been really diligent about keeping our customers and employees safe.
So a lot of your employees and co-workers are family members. You all must have a lot of love for each other and the restaurant. Can you talk a little about that family dynamic and what your hopes are for the next generation of Castro’s?
First of all, I have to give a lot of credit to my wife, Aimee. I don’t know what I’d do without her! My son and nephew have also been involved in the restaurant. You know, they’re really disciplined and talented kids, so they should follow their interests. But part of me thinks it might be our family destiny. I think back to my mom, who actually owned her own small vegetarian restaurant. Our family loves the interactions that take place in our restaurants. That might just be part of who we are.
It seems like the community also loves what happens in your restaurants, as there has been overwhelming support for the revival of Sol Y Luna. What makes this restaurant so special?
I think people have a really good time here. They build memories here. One example; the architect who actually helped us build out and design this space was passionate about being involved because he proposed to his wife in the old restaurant. It really meant something to him. Some of our patrons had dined with us when they were dating and now come back married with kids. It’s about creating a place with a feeling that people feel connected to.
So, I have to ask, what’s your favorite Sol Y Luna dish?
Definitely the lobster tacos.
You’ve obviously built a successful restaurant that is beloved by our community. And it goes beyond delicious lobster tacos and margaritas. In closing, what advice do you have for our own budding restaurateurs?
Don’t open a restaurant… no I’m kidding! First of all, you need to be passionate. Don’t go in it for the money. You really have to have a passion for the business. It takes a lot of dedication. You also need to have a great supporter, like what I have in my wife, Aimee. You need a great team of employees who can run things when you’re away.
And I think your passion needs to reach beyond the food. It has to be about the people who come to eat here and make memories here. It’s all about the people.