Johnny and Pauline Espinosa did what few are able to do, retire on their own terms.
While most people take a vacation and then return to their jobs until they’re able to squeeze in another vacation, Johnny and Pauline took a vacation and decided they wanted to make it permanent.
“We closed for vacation, but decided not to reopen,” Pauline says. “We closed, and then I said, ‘We’re not opening again – that’s it’.”
That was Monday, July 30, and the restaurant at 922 N. College Street has remained closed since, a handwritten sign on the door succinctly tells customers all they need to know: We are closed.
But those who know Johnny and Pauline, now 73 and 76 years old, respectively, probably don’t blame them for wanting to enjoy their golden years. For more than 53 years, they’ve been running the grocery store that became a restaurant. It’s been hard work, long hours and years upon years of service as a community landmark.
Tradition notwithstanding, Pauline admits there’s really just one reason for the sudden closure.
“We just too tired,” she lamented Friday when she recalled the more than a half century running the business. “I’ve been off four days, but I don’t feel it yet. I don’t feel rested.”
Johnny and Pauline got married in 1957. Johnny’s father, Antonio, used to operate Gonzales Food Market where he was a meat cutter, then decided to open his own grocery store under the name Toni’s Food Store, which is still in business at 209 St. Lawrence Street. It wasn’t long before he opened another grocery store called Espinosa’s.
But when Johnny’s mother became ill, Pauline and her husband stepped in to run the store.
Now, 53 years, six children and more memories than some can jam into two lifetimes, Johnny and Pauline admit there’s no one to carry on the legacy.
“We have no plans for it right now, not for us,” Pauline says. “We told our kids, ‘Y’all want to do something [with the business]?’ And they all said, ‘No, we don’t want it’.”
But Pauline realizes her children all have their own careers – architect, beautician, certified social worker, city employee, banker, insurance – and being a restaurateur is not on the list for any of them. So she expects the business to sit idle unless someone comes along wanting to reopen a restaurant.
In the 1950s and ’60s, running a small grocery store in Gonzales was fruitful, which is undoubtedly why H-E-B targeted Gonzales in the early 1970s.
“We were doin’ great until [H-E-B] came,” Pauline recalls. That’s when Espinosa’s, in the care of Johnny and Pauline, and Toni’s, with son David and wife Minnie in charge, became restaurants.
“We’ve done good in the café because we were both cooks,” Pauline proclaims. “But we just learned ourselves. Nobody taught us anything. But my husband is a good barbecue man and sausage maker, and makes his own steaks. That helps a lot.”
But owning the family business required dedication. Pauline’s day started at 4:30 a.m. and she would be working constantly serving breakfast and lunch until the restaurant closed about 3 p.m. And that was only after the business hours were shortened.
The pace was even more grueling from the 1970s until after the turn of the century.
“Way back, we used to open until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, seven days a week, [in order] to send all those kids to school,” Pauline remembers. “Then we started slackin’ back in the 2000s. It was a long time. We couldn’t take it no more. We were open all the time; never closed.”
But, Pauline confides, the restaurant business is not as profitable these days as it once was. And she’s not apologizing for her decision to make what she calls “a much-needed vacation” a permanent lifestyle.
Pauline does admit that closing the doors to the restaurant is going to take some getting used to, particularly because of her faithful customers.
“I’m gonna miss ’em,” she says quietly. “I just hated to give it up, because I’m used to being with people all the time. They got to be my family. We’d shoot the bull. We’d cater to ’em as much as we could.
“I really hated it. I’m really gonna miss ’em.”
So no what are those wanting a home-cooked meal at lunch going to do?
“I don’t know,” Pauline says. “I guess they’ll go to Minnie’s.”