The Life of Alfonso J. Castañeda: A Dream and Recipe for Success

After 33 successful years in the restaurant business, Alfonso "Al" J. Castañeda will walk away from his childhood dream, Doña Esther

In 1952, a then-6-year-old Alfonso J. Castañeda was stirred from his sleep by the silence of a humming car engine. After several days of traveling, Castañeda and his grandparents, mother, and younger sister had arrived at their final destination. Half-awake, the young boy stepped out of the car and was soon swallowed by a sea of yellow, the mustard weed towering above the boy’s head. As Castañeda slowly made his way toward the family’s new home, little did he know the indelible footprint he would leave upon the city of San Juan Bautista.

Castañeda’s journey began in Mexico City. Mired in poverty and lacking opportunity, Castañeda’s grandparents, José del Carmen and Esther, decided to join their other children in the United States. They convinced their daughter Amparo, a single-mother of two, to go as well. Full of the hope that immigrants carry with them the family packed-up and headed north.

The elation that accompanied the family’s reunification didn’t last long. Tragedy struck a few months after Castañeda arrived in San Juan Bautista. A car accident claimed the lives of his aunt, Jesse, and a family friend, while his mother, Amparo, and a fourth woman, the driver, were seriously injured. The women were on their way back from work when the accident occurred. For months, Amparo was bed-ridden, lying in traction. 

The walls of the Castañeda home on First Street were now insulated with sorrow and tears, as Esther blamed herself for daughter’s death and Castañeda and his little sister, Carmen, watched their mother writhing in pain.

With no income to support her and her children, Amparo relied on county assistance to make ends meet. She vowed to pay the amount back and once she was able to she did. Castañeda said in a recent interview with BenitoLink that his late mother was a “woman of principle and an extremely hard worker,” qualities that he always admired in her and ones that he has dedicated his life to emulating.

Attending the former San Juan Bautista Grammar School, Castañeda met lifelong friends. The boys often played impromptu games of baseball after school, though because of his family’s economic situation, Castañeda’s participation was interrupted by his newspaper route.

With his paycheck, Castañeda became a contributing member of his family, something that lasted throughout his childhood and teenage years. “He bought us clothes for school and school supplies,” Castañeda’s sister, Carmen Perez, of San Juan Bautista, said of her brother at an event honoring him last month.

Alongside family and friends, Castañeda spent his summer months working in the orchards and fields of the San Juan Valley. Arduous and monotonous, the work left a lasting impression on him. Though the circumstances of his young life left him little choice, he didn’t want this to be his future.

After eighth grade, Castañeda attended San Benito High School. He explained that for those of his generation and ethnicity, a high school diploma was thought “to be the biggest thing” one could hope to achieve academically.

His mother’s dream of watching her son holding a diploma was almost derailed in 1964. Castañeda’s then-16-year old girlfriend, Candy Latham, gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Tami. Castañeda explained that his entry into early fatherhood devastated his mother. “I let her down,” he said.

The young parents and their infant daughter lived with Castañeda’s mother, step-father, and two younger sisters. (In 1958, Amparo met and later married the late Isadore J. Blanco. The couple had one daughter, Delia).  

One day, Castañeda received a call from the late Don Isaacson, who owned a ranch in the San Juan Canyon, where Castaneda had spent some time working. A career military man, Isaacson didn’t mince words. He was disappointed in his former ranch hand, but he offered to help Castañeda out. 

Dictating the terms of his assistance, Isaacson offered Castañeda a small house on his property where he and his young family could stay. In return, Castaneda would attend school during the day, and work on the ranch in the afternoon, earning money for groceries and other necessities. “Paint, paint, and paint,” Castañeda said of what he did that year on the Isaacson’s ranch.

Isaacson’s stern support paid off and Castañeda graduated, restoring his mother’s faith in her son.

To this day, Castañeda abhors painting, but he remains forever indebted to the man who offered a helping a hand in a desperate hour of need.

Castañeda and Candy married, and, in 1965, the couple added another daughter, Julie, to their family. In 1966, Castañeda was hired as a butcher at a local Hollister grocery store, learning a craft that defined nearly a third of his life.

His marriage to Candy was anything but blissful, and the two later separated and divorced, leaving Castañeda as a single father.

His sister, Carmen, and her husband, Frank Perez, were indispensable during this turbulent time. The couple, who had three young children of their own, became surrogate parents to both Tami and Julie. And for a few years, the two families shared a three-bedroom home together on in San Juan Bautista.

Following the breakup of his marriage, Castañeda continued work as a butcher, managing the meat department of stores, including those of the now defunct Alpha-Beta grocery chain. He also tried his hand at managing the former Save-More market in Hollister. These experiences and the contacts he made within the food industry would prove invaluable years later.

While behind the meat counter or stocking the shelves in the early morning, Castañeda often ruminated about the years spent at the table of his grandmother, Esther’s house.

“She was always in the kitchen, cooking,” he said of Esther. “She was a great cook,” he added. Her flair for Mexican cuisine earned her a reputation in the community, too. Castañeda friends often begged him to take them to his grandmother’s house for homemade tortillas, rice, beans, and sopa (Mexican soup). In a fleeting moment, the Castañeda clan even considered helping Esther open a restaurant in San Juan Bautista. But that never happened, and so Castañeda convinced himself that seeing his grandmother’s dream through was his responsibility.

Opportunity knocked in the late 1970s. A restaurant building became vacant in San Juan Bautista. Castañeda approached his parents, who pleaded with their son that opening a restaurant was too risky of a venture. They weren’t alone. The landlord, the late Abe Correia, said that the 30-something-year-old lacked experience and should wait until he was older.

Over the course of five years, three or four restaurants moved into the building at 25 Franklin St. in San Juan Bautista. When the building again became vacant, a driven and determined Castañeda contacted Correia. The grizzled property owner finally gave the aspiring entrepreneur a shot, agreeing to lease the building for five years, though after one year the two men would assess the business’s performance.

Harnessing the power of family and friends, Castañeda began converting the building into a Mexican restaurant. The bricks of an open rotisserie were leveled to make room for an overhead oven. Dinnerware was purchased to serve what would became the restaurant’s signature dishes. Employees were hired, too. Initially, the waiting staff only included Castañeda’s two daughters, Castañeda explained.

The name Castañeda chose for his restaurant was never in doubt. Honoring the memory of his late grandmother, Esther, he called his establishment, Doña Esther. The image of the humble woman would soon be emblazoned on menus, business cards, and billboards. 

The restaurant opened on March 22,1982. Longtime San Juan Bautista resident, Angie Lopez, and her daughter, Stephanie Sanchez of Hollister, were its first customers, a piece of trivia shared last month at Castañeda’s 70th birthday and retirement party held at the Hacienda de Léal in San Juan Bautista.

Early on, Castañeda managed a meat department by day and his restaurant by night. After a few years, he was at Doña Esther full-time, often lending a hand in the kitchen, waiting on customers, bussing tables, serving drinks in the bar, washing dishes, even cleaning toilets. 

The restaurant expanded over time, adding employees—many of whom were extended family members—floor space, and a faithful following of clientele.

Castañeda always prided himself on providing the customer with excellent service and food. Decorating the walls of Doña Esther are scores of plaques, as well as a number of framed newspaper clippings and magazine articles praising these attributes.

As the reputation of his restaurant grew, so too did his family.

In 1988, Castañeda and his second wife, Olga Gutierrez, celebrated the birth of the couple’s first child, Monique. She was joined by her brother, A.J. in 1994. Castañeda and Olga later divorced.

While building his restaurant business and raising his children, Castañeda found time to volunteer and serve his community. For years, he coached a San Juan Little League baseball team. In addition, he has served on countless committees and organizations in San Benito County, including the Rotary Club of San Juan Bautista and the Community Foundation of San Benito County.

In 1996, he was named man-of-the year by the Mexican-American Committee on Education of San Benito County for his service to the organization and the community. 

At the end of October, Castañeda will retire. When asked why he decided to walk away from his childhood dream, he said, “[A]lmost 34 years in the restaurant business, almost 20 years in the meat business…That’s a whole bunch of years. So, I’m tired.”

Suffering from diabetes for more than 20 years, Castañeda admitted that his health also played a factor. “I have a 10-year plan,” he bluntly stated. Traveling with his wife, spending more time with family and grandchildren, and just relaxing are the things on his bucket list. “If the Lord grants me five extra..that would be awesome,” he added.

Accompanying Castañeda through his golden years will be his third wife, Lupe. The couple first met in 1967. Their friendship turned romantic many years later and the couple married in 1999. For the last 17 years, the couple has called Hollister home. Until he officially retires, the Castañedas are content to go on “dates” to the local grocery store or simply to sit on their couch and watch a movie together, explained Lupe.

The last month has been a whirlwind for Castañeda. Hundreds joined his family and friends on Sept. 19 for a birthday and retirement party at the Hacienda de Léal in San Juan Bautista. The City of San Juan Bautista proclaimed September, "Alfonso J. Castañeda Month," noting that for 33 years he’s been “a leading fixture in the business community…and a favored son and beloved member of this community.” 

Last week, an intimate event was held at the Castañeda home, where he received recognition from the California state legislature and the City of Hollister for his decades as a businessman and restaurant owner.

Castañeda is quick to point out that his retirement doesn’t mean that Doña Esther is shuttering its doors. “It will be business as usual,” he said by telephone last week. His daughter, Tami Castañeda-Huaracha, and his son-in-law, Harvey (Javier), will take over the reins on Nov. 1. 

Castañeda said Doña Esther is in very good hands. Since the beginning, Tami has been at his side, learning the ins-and-outs of the business and overseeing day-to-day operations for years.

On Saturday, Oct. 31, Al Castañeda will head off to work a little earlier than normal. As he makes his way toward San Juan Bautista along Highway 156 West, he’ll  survey the picturesque San Juan Valley and think about the years he spent there as a farm laborer. He’ll make the right turn on the Alameda in San Juan Bautista, driving past Doña Esther and making another right onto Washington Street, where he’ll stop and stare at the San Juan Bautista Mission, the parish that has fed his spiritual growth for more than half a century. He’ll say a prayer and drive three-quarters around the block, parking in front of his restaurant. Then he’ll walk in and prepare for the day ahead. 

This ritual, which he described as “waking up the restaurant,” is one of things he’ll miss in retirement. But most of all, he’ll miss the two things that have brought him success—his staff over the years and his customers.

There’s little doubt that they and the city of San Juan Bautista will ever forget the man whose lasting legacy was sown on a patch of yellow mustard weed.

 

 

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Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. I’m embarking on my 19th year at San Benito High School, where I teach world history and Mexican-American history. In addition, I'm moonlighting as a freelance journalist for BenitoLink. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.