Growing up, I never wanted to be in the restaurant business,” says Sandy Cerna, whose parents ran a small breakfast-and-lunch eatery called El Jarro. “I thought it was just too much hard work.” But it was in her blood. Despite her early misgivings, little Sandy grew up to become a restaurateur, a title she happily shares with her chef husband, Arturo Cerna. Since 1975, the couple have co-owned the popular North Side eatery El Jarro de Arturo.

When we first asked her for an interview in early May, Sandy was too busy to talk. Mother’s Day was coming up, taxes were due, and she had labor problems. She couldn’t really concentrate on the interview, she explained. So when we finally meet, a week later, I ask if the problems have been resolved. We are sitting on the restaurant’s patio at 9:30 a.m. while the staff is busy cleaning the dining room inside. “I got an extension on the tax filing, so that took some of the pressure off,” she says, looking fairly relaxed. “But employee problems are still here — in fact, got worse. We had to let another person go, so we need three servers and three bus people to take the pressure off the current staff. But you have to do what you have to do. In this economy, you would think they would be knocking on our door, but it’s hard work here; you have to really like the hospitality business.

“We’ve been lucky, though, to have staff members who have been with us for years. Our turnover is normally very low. We demand excellent customer service from all our people, and we can’t lower the standards. I tell my employees that when someone (a customer) comes through the door, you are immediately on stage to perform for them without being too invasive.” A few moments later she points to a man walking toward the restaurant and exclaims, “See this gentleman? He’s been with us since 1977 or 78, and he is not the only one.” The gentleman in question, Isaias Ayala, is a waiter, but general manager John Costales is also a long-time employee, as is his assistant manager, Adela Essex. Waiters make a very good living at El Jarro, says Cerna, because customers appreciate good service. In fact, regular customers often have the cell phone number of their favorite server and call in advance to let him or her know they are coming. Such good relationships with staff are encouraged, especially since regular patrons comprise the bulk of the business. “I would say every fourth table is (likely to be occupied by) regulars,” she estimates.

Altogether, the restaurant employs 40 to 45 people — including 12 cooks — who take care of diners seven days a week in a facility that seats 300. At peak times, there are as many as 15 waiters on the floor. Though El Jarro’s style is more upscale than the typical Mexican restaurant in town, the atmosphere is warm and inviting. “Our restaurant has been compared to the bar from ‘Cheers.’ It has that neighborhood feeling,” notes the proud proprietress. “The customers often know each other. There’s a lot of table-hopping. Sometimes a husband and wife will come together, and he will sit at the bar while she sits at a table. Very informal.” But, of course, the main attraction is the food. El Jarro’s fresh salsa has been voted the best in town by Express-News readers on more than one occasion, and patrons have raved about other dishes as well. Favorites include Green Corn Chicken Enchiladas, Flavorful Cabrito and Pasta Cruda with Chili Ancho. As the executive chef, Arturo is responsible for the cuisine, which he periodically updates and enriches with new, more contemporary offerings. Sandy is in charge of support functions, such as human resources, office administration, catering plans and keeping an eye on the floor.

Over the years, the Cernas have learned to work together effectively by “not stepping on each other’s toes.” Still, it’s only natural that they would consult each other on any number of issues. “What makes my work easier is that I am appreciated by my husband, Art,” Sandy wrote in an e-mail. “He is most sensitive to my needs and my emotions. I am so lucky to have someone who accepts my ideas and never challenges my integrity.”

Never a dull moment
Sandy and Arturo met in 1971 in her parents’ restaurant, the original El Jarro, which means “jug” as in “a jug full of delicious margaritas.” Their relationship developed over a period of four years before they married, in 1975. Arturo, who had been in the restaurant business since he started as a dishwasher at 11, became Sandy’s dad’s partner for a year. He tried to convince his soon-to-be father-in-law to expand and go upscale, but the older man was contemplating retirement and was not interested. Thus was born El Jarro de Arturo, which at first had two locations, the present one on San Pedro and another on Bandera Road, north of 410.

“I enjoyed having my dad come to the restaurant and see how it had evolved,” says Sandy, smiling at the memory. “He was very proud of us.”

Seventeen years and three kids later, the Cernas closed the Bandera location to focus on the site closer to their home. Today, their middle son, Carlo, 29, works with them. They have no desire to build a culinary empire. One busy restaurant is enough. “This is my empire,” says Sandy, motioning to indicate the premises around us. And it’s certainly a lively one. By 11:30 a.m., the place is already buzzing with eager diners who flock to the nicely appointed buffet. And it will pretty much continue like that till closing time.

With so many people coming and going, there’s hardly a dull moment. On occasion, however, things get livelier than usual. Sandy remembers the day she had to stand between two angry men to prevent them from attacking each other. The dispute concerned a patio heater that one table wanted while the neighboring one didn’t. “The men from each table stood up and spread their fighting male feathers, glaring at each other,” she recalls. “I had to get between them even though both towered over me. I was thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’ Gradually, I calmed them down, and they ended up toasting each other with tequila. The entire patio applauded.” On a more recent occasion, two waiters got into a fistfight that had them rolling on the floor. The guys were fired, but patrons were amused, later referring to the skirmish as “the show.” Then there are the happy moments when a young man asks the staff to hide an engagement ring in a Champagne glass or inside a dessert. “I love to watch to see the girl’s reaction. So far, all the girls have said ‘yes,’” laughs Sandy.

Unless they are traveling, the Cernas seldom have a chance to spend a full day together pursuing leisure or family activities. On weekend nights, they seldom get home before 1 a.m. Still, they manage to carve out time away from business, both individually and as a couple. A favorite escape consists of dining elsewhere, like at Barbaresco for fine Italian food, at Wildfish Seafood Grille or at the Dough Pizzeria. Other restaurateurs also come to eat at their establishment. But all that hard work has paid off. El Jarro has been recognized by Who’s Who Among America’s Best Restaurants, and Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the three best Mexican restaurants in the country. (One interesting detail: When the Bon Appetit crew came to town to take pictures, they hired models to pose as diners and brought makeup artists to do their faces. So much for authenticity!) Nevertheless, “it was a great article,” says the owner.

As business grew over the years, the Cernas expanded into off-site catering and more recently added the outdoor patio. They have also brought in weekend entertainment with two different bands alternating on Fridays and Saturdays plus the eclectic trio Hot Sauce playing every other Thursday.

“You see why I spend so many hours here,” quips Sandy. “It’s just so much fun.”