After the dust clears, the paint dries and all the furniture is arranged, Bandoleros will open its doors on Sudbury Road, promising to provide “the true taste of Mexico.”
Workers were polishing the new bar and preparing to set out new furniture at the end of January as an artist finished a mural of Emiliano Zapata that graces the dining room wall. A backlit, colored glass inset in the ceiling looked like a skylight. The kitchen boasts all new equipment.
Restaurateur Elmer Melendez is building this 100-plus seat restaurant that will be open for lunch and dinner.
“This is a real American dream,” he said.
His roots in Concord restaurants go back 20 years, some of them spent in what would become his own establishment in 2024.
He pointed to the spot in the fully refurnished kitchen where he worked the Fryolator and grill from 2003 to 2005 for Serafina, the previous tenant. He also ran the snack concession at The Thoreau Club at one time.
He is no longer a staff member at 195 Sudbury Road; he owns the business with his wife, Delmy Magana.
“Coming back to Concord is an achievement,” he said: Working with the town has been a pleasure and he is thrilled when people recognize him.
Bandolero, with a chef that has cooked in restaurants throughout Mexico, will open as soon as the work is done and permits are final, probably at the end of February.
He knows Concord will expect an extraordinary experience that goes beyond food. A jazz musician or two will provide background music at times. Their liquor license enables them to serve latecomers.
“We always do business for the community,” he said.
That might mean making changes to the menu and personnel changes, as he has done in his older restaurants.
Melendez always closed on Memorial Day, July 4 and Thanksgiving so that he and his staff could celebrate these important American holidays, he said.
After arriving in Boston in 1999 from El Salvador with his wife and two preschool-aged children, also named Elmer and Delmy, the future restauranteur had no choice but to work, and to work hard. Sometimes, over 100 hours a week: cleaning dishes and busing tables, gaining skills and responsibilities and learning English, all the while socking away money for his family’s future.
In the United States, people can move up in life, he said.
The former dishwasher and his wife now own a family of both Italian and Mexican restaurants in the region.
Plans are in the works to open an Italian restaurant, Dario’s, in the former Chang An location across the way in Concord, as well as a Spanish restaurant in Worcester.
He promises four things with each of his dining establishments. They will be clean and hygienic, serve high-quality food and drinks, be consistent, and provide excellent service.
Keeping things clean is a major reason he chooses to invest money in new kitchen equipment when he opens a new restaurant. His chefs will not be inheriting any problems.
He sources food carefully, such as the different types of corn from Oaxaca, Mexico, used for the made-daily tortillas. Craft cocktails boast fresh fruit juices and in-house syrups, nothing from bottles.
Purchasing Fair Trade goods and buying from small producers is important to him. “They’re supporting a family in Mexico,” he said.
His years in the kitchen, as he learned the trade, serve him well as he continues to work with staff to ensure consistency and service.
“Don’t try; just do it” is the key to success, he said.
“My food is going to come out the way I want it to come out,” Melendez said. Seasoned employees take what they’ve learned in his established restaurants to the newer locations. They, in turn, train the new team in everything from how to answer the phone to how to prepare the food.
Managers work each job in the restaurant before they take responsibility for a location. Melendez then feels secure in delegating responsibility to them.
He provides a handbook, spelling out the expectations he has for his workers and his promises to them. He is pleased with his employee retention.
“We pay them well,” he said. “I’m not greedy.”
When Melendez arrived, he came with dreams figuratively packed in the cartons the family used to travel with their possessions because they could not afford luggage.
“We had to do what we had to do for our kids,” Melendez said.
While he was working hard, he made a discovery: “I love cooking,” he said. In El Salvador men do not cook because of machismo, a strong sense of masculine pride, he explained.
In 2005, the couple opened their first independent restaurant, Dario’s, in Lunenburg and began to earn a reputation for excellent food. Soon after, they opened a second Dario’s in Fitchburg, experimenting with the menu until they landed on what the community wanted.
Dario’s was so successful in Fitchburg that it moved from a small luncheonette location to a much larger and more elegant building on Main Street in April 2023.
Melendez’s dream of providing for his children was reached. His son earned a master’s degree and his daughter, her bachelor’s. Both have started careers in their respective professions.
Their papi is proud of them.
Melendez and Magana live in the home they built in Gardner. As many might, Melendez took great joy in pulling out his phone to show pictures of the three turkeys he prepared at Thanksgiving in their outside wood-fired brick ovens.
Even for the owners of upscale restaurants, some pleasures are simple. He and his wife carved into a bird and enjoyed a hot turkey sandwich before their many guests arrived.
Melendez has no plans to kick back.
At 51, he is still working on his dreams. A few of those cardboard boxes the family hauled from El Salvador remain unpacked.