El Meson founders Herman and Gloria Castro not only have their children Bill and Marie Castro by their side, but now their grandson, Marie’s son — Stefen Castro-Lamely.
The Castros moved to Dayton in 1966 from Bogota, Colombia, for Herman’s job with NCR. It was a move that forever influenced and changed their family and the face of dining in the Miami Valley.
In 1978, the family purchased a small failing business in West Carrollton called Pizza Queen with just one employee and three tables, opening El Meson to the public on July 15,1978.
There have been five major additions to the property and building over the years, with the family continuing to reinvest in upgrades.
Those three humble tables have grown to a bustling restaurant that can seat a whopping 450 people in five different dining rooms, including 15 tables in its beautiful solarium and 10 tables on the front patio of the restaurant, which was part of the last addition.
“The inspiration for El Meson was a dream. My father has instilled that in us and the dream is about reaching for the stars ... reaching for what is different and unique. Reinventing ourselves. Our butterfly logo is the evolution of life. Forty-three years into it, that is who we are and what we are,” said Bill Castro, partner and co-owner of the restaurant. “The story of El Meson continues to be written. It’s not something that has a stop. But with this story it’s about that next generation. Having Stefen and that next generation.”
Castro says Stefen coming to help take over work in the kitchen and some of the management of the restaurant has brought new vision, new ideas and even new recipes.
As he continues to learn the family business, his grandparents have been there to help share wisdom and inspiration and teach the values of the El Meson legacy.
“Herman is now 86 this year and still has a spark in his eyes. We value his knowledge and wisdom every day,” said Bill.
Castro says watching his first-generation father teach and help his third-generation nephew has been a gift.
Stefen is taking over Chef Mark Abbott’s position (Bill’s husband, who recently retired) in the kitchen, stepping in as the kitchen manager and “head orchestrator” for the food going out.
“We have a wonderful team of staff that has been with us anywhere up to more than 20 years. Different preps, different sous chefs, different grills ... We rotate all of our kitchen staff throughout the positions from prep to menu contribution to grilling to cooking. We don’t just put a crown on one person ... we contribute, delegate and work together,” said Bill.
He says the secret to 43 years in business is no secret at all.
“There’s no secret to success. It’s called show up and do the best you can and that has never changed. We are always 100 percent on. I hope our customers see that,” said Bill. “That’s how El Meson grew from Pizza Queen ... we converted people. We taught people about Hispanic food.”
Castro says that in the restaurant business it’s good to know where you came from, but more important to know where you are going and what the future holds.
“There’s many restaurants that have pretty much tanked because they did not change, because they did not evolve. It’s not a matter of what we didn’t do, it’s how and why we are going forward and what new concepts we’re challenging ourselves with ... how you are going to rebrand and relaunch a new image and new product, a new style of dining and that’s where we are today.”
COVID continued to challenge the family, but in typical Castro fashion they innovated and rose to the challenge, recreating and restructuring their entire business to be able to do curbside food service. It’s a tall order for a restaurant that never did much carryout. They had to fine tune the menu for food that would hold up well to go, invest in a point-of-sale system and, once open, add a new reservation system to handle customers coming back in person.
They lost over $500,000 in one month of holiday events that went dark in 2020, but it’s no surprise with a family motto like theirs — “Si, se puede” or “Yes, we can” — that they continued to find ways to persevere and create new avenues to engage the public along the way.
At the start of the pandemic, Bill and Abbott began hosting “Friday watch parties” from their home on Facebook at the start of the pandemic, sharing cocktail and cooking demonstrations of some of El Meson’s favorite dishes. This customer engagement resulted in the launch of a video streaming subscription service — “Viva La Vida, A Recipe for Life” in late 2020.
It’s innovation and new ideas that continue to drive them and drive the business.
When they began noticing a younger generation not taking as much interest in their restaurant, they slowly began to build a fleet of six food trucks to go to them.
“We started our food truck fleet because of the next generation — to go out and bring them back into the restaurant. Now we are doing their wedding receptions, their rehearsal dinners and they are coming back,” said Bill. “Families who were married with us are now bringing in their children.”
As El Meson begins to turn the keys over to a new generation to run the business, they are ushering in a new generation of customers.
The keen eye they have given to technology, staffing and food trends has also been brought to the restaurant’s menu, service and special events. They added birria tacos for Cinco de Mayo. Flavorful flat breads conceived by Stefen were added reimagining what a Cuban sandwich could be and bringing a twist to how they can serve Carne Asada and Jerk chicken.
When it comes to restaurants that hit the mark with consistently delicious food, exemplary customer service and a setting that strikes the right tone for the meal, El Meson is truly a local dining destination — a small generational Hispanic family business — that continues to execute on dreams and vision, love and hard work 43 years later.
As a customer who has loved this restaurant since we were first introduced, I’m comforted knowing it’s in good hands.
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HOW TO GO
What: El Meson
Where: 903 E. Dixie Drive, West Carrollton
More info: 937-859-8229 or www.elmeson.net or www.vivalavida.media
Order: Manchego Puffs (five for $8 or 10 for $13), chicken tortilla soup ($9 small, $13 large), Chilean salmon stack ($30), Chimichurri steak ($28), Paella de Valenciana or Mariscos ($28)
Specials: National Margarita Day is every Wednesday at El Meson with $5 margaritas and $26 margarita pitchers, National Sangria Day is every Thursday at El Meson with $5 sangrias and $26 sangria pitchers