Original, Hermosa Beach El Gringo overtaken by rising rents
The beloved family-style Beach Mex joint is priced out by rising rents at the beach
by Mark McDermott
Something about the building always sparked Bill Graw´s imagination. He lived a few blocks away, up by Valley Park, and often walked down the hill to have a burrito at El Gringo and then a drink across the street at Critters. He’d station himself at a window seat and stare back at El Gringo, a weird but cool building that rises improbably from the curve of a hill on Hermosa Avenue, like some stranded ship.
“Man,” he’d say to whomever he was having a drink. “I’d like to buy that restaurant someday.”
This was during the mid-1990s. Graw was in his 20s. He had grown up locally, attended USC and obtained a business degree, then returned to the Beach Cities, where he was working his way through graduate school at Pepperdine, pursuing a master’s degree in psychology. But he already knew what he wanted to do.
“I studied psych because of my experience in the service industry,” Graw said. “People and their behaviors interested me.”
Graw had always loved to work. His first job, as a teenager, was at Ardella’s Pizzeria at Manhattan Village mall. But it was his next job, at Penguin’s Yogurt on Upper Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach that made him realize what kind of work he loved — being part of a crew, and serving customers.
“The Penguins job really altered my career path,” Graw recalled. “I liked customer service, and I liked the way the management team hired all high school kids. The energy level was amazing.”
He worked as a bartender at the 12th Street Bar in Manhattan Beach through most of his 20s, putting himself through school, while also selling real estate. In 1997, local Realtor John Altamura, impressed with Graw’s hustle, helped him buy Zeppy’s Pizzeria, a small take-out pizza joint on Hermosa’s Pier Avenue. Graw replicated what he’d learned at Penguin’s and had a bustling little business. He might have stayed in the pizza business, but he kept doing his El Gringo-to-Critter’s routine, and looking at that building, wondering, “What if?”
Then one day in 2001, Graw heard through the grapevine that both El Gringo and its building were for sale. As a little pizza operator, he didn’t have enough money for the whole purchase, but by coincidence, an acquaintance of his bought the building and called him up to ask if he wanted to take over El Gringo. Graw didn’t have the money for the business, either, but he had a group of buddies from his days at the ATO fraternity at USC, and they all pooled their funds so he could buy El Gringo.
On December 1, 2001, Graw became the owner of El Gringo. He was 29 years old, and he’d bought his go-to restaurant.
“I was a great customer,” Graw said. “My wife and I live literally in the same location I lived in the 90s…I’d walk diagonally across Valley Park and we’d go to El Gringo and then Critter’s. It’s a fairy tale. I’d be in Critter’s and say, ‘I’d love to buy that someday.’ And guess what? I did.”
Over the next 19 years and 11 months, Graw somehow pulled a slow-motion, magic trick out of his hat. He not only kept El Gringo afloat but prospered, opening up three more El Gringos in the neighboring Beach Cities. And he did so while quietly transforming the restaurant from a greasy but great, surfer-beloved dive to a health-oriented “Beach Mex” institution that remained the go-to spot for multiple generations of Junior Guards and young surfers. Graw made El Gringo an institution by hewing faithfully to what was great about it from the beginning, and what drew him to it.
“It was the customers,” Graw said. “I’ve worked in a restaurant my entire life. I’ve done high-end and low-end, and I really like the El gringo customer. An El Gringo customer could actually be someone who enjoys fine dining as well, but I like people who enjoy just good food with paper napkins. I like that caliber, that character of a person. That was up my alley. That’s who I am, and that’s who I want to serve.”
On Friday night, the original El Gringo will close its doors, and not because of the pandemic — during which customers came in droves to keep their favorite restaurant alive — nor because the business is less popular. The restaurant is more popular than ever. The reason El Gringo Hermosa is closing is because the economics of running a restaurant near the beach have changed. Graw is leaving amicably, with nothing but gratitude for his friend, the landlord, who gave him his original opportunity, two 10-year leases, and faithfully tried to negotiate a new lease. But in 20 years, the per square foot cost of renting restaurant space close to the beach has more than doubled and will soon triple. Graw paid less than $3 per square foot when he started. His new lease would have been $7.50.
“That’s a lot of burritos,” Graw said. “That’s one of the biggest problems we actually face, and when I say it, that’s no joke. It’s that a business operation nowadays — some of these places are selling a meal for $45, and we’re selling a burrito for $15. It’s volume, where you’ve got to turn and turn, you’ve got to have a lot of takeout and flip tables….Eventually, it gets to the point where you just realize, ‘Wow, there’s just not enough seats.’ That’s a lot of burritos. The math just does not work.”
Graw hopes to find a new location in Hermosa and the other El Gringos are still flourishing. As he likes to say, “El Gringo is not a building.” But the closing of the original El Gringo still marks the end of an era, and it’s something that a lot of locals are sad to see go.
Casey Chiapettia Elliott grew up in the neighborhood and remembers running around El Gringo as a 7-year-old when it was still run by Francis and Brian Byhower, her family’s friends. She worked there for 11 years under Graw’s management, and recently launched her own business, Lomita Alehouse, in no small part due to his mentorship. She has trouble imagining that building being anything but El Gringo.
“It should never be anything but El Gringo,” she said. “That building was made to be El Gringo. It’s more than a restaurant. It’s like Cheers, because everyone knows your name. Our customers were regulars. I used to get babysitting jobs from them. One of my favorite things was seeing the moms come in with their kids after school.”
Tiffany Rau and her husband Chip have been going to Gringos since 1994. They ate hundreds if not thousands of meals at Gringos, or from Gringos as takeout. It was also a place where their two kids could go on their own as they got older — like generations of local kids, it was the first restaurant where the Rau kids bought their own meals and could later feel comfortable as teenagers with their friends.
“It’s an icon,” Rau said. “A real icon that we are losing, and we’ve already lost a lot of others. But this is a big one.”
The reign of El Gringo
Graw had ideas about how to improve El Gringo when he first took over.
He loved the hole-in-the-wall nature of the restaurant that he’d been going to for a decade. His plan was to keep that vibe — one that was already becoming an endangered species as the Beach Cities rapidly gentrified in the ‘90s — while quietly upgrading the quality of the food and everything else about the restaurant.
“Being a true local…like I was born and raised here, and you’ve seen this done before,” Graw said. “It’s the art of, ‘Can you maintain the vibe but clean it up without ruining it?’ So the best answer, the best way of doing that, is you do it very slowly.”
Over the next two decades, El Gringo changed incrementally, slowly enough that it was hardly noticeable year-by-year, but significantly enough that the restaurant today is much different than it was in 2001.
“You mix out the old furniture, and put in new furniture so over a 20 year period things really kind of blossomed,” Graw said. “So what it is today versus what it was before — things have changed drastically.”
The food and the menu also changed. Graw kept the famous El Gringo staples, the burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, but he started using fresher, higher quality and more authentic ingredients, and eventually added salads, fresh fish, and other healthy options. As he himself became a family man and the Beach Cities palate grew more health-conscious, El Gringo transformed from more of a surfer dude kind of burrito joint to a healthy family restaurant.
“In 2000, you’re eating wrapped tacos in a plastic taco basket, drinking soda from red Coca Cola cups,” Graw said. “And in 2021, you’re dining on real china, drinking higher-end wine from real wine glasses, eating grilled fish with grilled vegetables or even sauteed spinach. It’s a trip to actually walk by a table and see someone drinking higher-end white wine, and you are serving them fish with grilled vegetables. It’s a trip to actually walk by a table and be like, ‘I’m still in the same building as 20 years ago.’ We did it based on what I wanted and feedback from the customers. We fixed the menu slowly and became who we are.”
Graw took his wayward ship of a restaurant and turned it into a fleet, opening up El Gringos in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and El Segundo. But somehow the soul of the restaurant never changed. It remained a place where young surf kids had their first meals without their parents, but also became a place where they had meals with their parents.
“This happens, and it’s happened for the last 20 years,” Graw said. “The Junior Lifeguard kids come off the beach, and as they make their way back home, they walk by El Gringo and sit down. These are young kids who probably never dined out by themselves before, and they come and sit down and eat, just with their friends, these 10- and 11-year-olds. The only difference between now and 20 years ago is they used to have cash, and now they all have their own debit cards.”
Another difference from 20 years ago is how Graw viewed El Gringo’s local role. As time went by, Graw’s ambitions didn’t exactly wane, but the direction those ambitions took towards a different value, that of community. El Gringo is legendary for the ubiquitousness of its sponsorships — from children’s to high school sports, as well as dozens of other school programs, and of course donated El Gringo burritos are a part of many charity events, and non-profit surf contests in the South Bay.
“I think that in 2001, I was a young ambitious entrepreneur who wanted to make a lot of money,” Graw said. “And I think by 2021, I’m still the same entrepreneur with a drive, but I like being part of the community and being a part of people’s lives, no matter what that may be. I didn’t have that when I was younger. I was fresh out of college and tried to make money. But as time went by, and I purchased a home in Hermosa, and raised my kids here — the difference between making money, and really being involved in the community and providing jobs, I think that’s the one thing that’s most surprising and satisfying.”
What happened during the pandemic, when every restaurant struggled to survive through lockdowns and severe dining restrictions, brought the lessons in community Graw experienced at El Gringo Hermosa full circle. The restaurant industry as a whole is often transitory, with restaurants, restaurant concepts, and restaurant owners coming and going. El Gringo Hermosa had deep enough roots to survive a long time.
“It’s the difference of really digging your feet into a community restaurant — like, El Gringo taught me that the community really is everything. And that just recently exposed itself in the most wonderful way, and that was the pandemic, right?” Graw said. “The community saved us.”
When Graw is asked what he does for a living, his first response is not that he is a restaurant owner; it is that he is an employer. El Gringo Hermosa has employed 450 people under Graw’s ownership, and for about 70 percent of those employees it was their first job.
“I have always really prided myself in the ability to give local kids first time jobs in restaurants because I was once a local kid in Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach, and got jobs in the local restaurants, and I remember what it was like,” Graw said. “To this day, we still have 16-year-old high school kids working first-time jobs for us. Twenty years ago, we had 16-year-olds working for us. Now I bump into them on The Strand and they have 12-year-old kids. It’s outrageous. They have whole families. And it’s just incredible to me to watch the whole process.”
The is part of the El Gringo Hermosa legacy that has been continuous since its founding in 1986 by Brian and Francis Byhower. Bob Courtney, a legendary lawyer who lives across the street and has been an El Gringo regular for four decades, recalled that his daughter Erin’s first job was at the restaurant right after it opened.
“Erin, our youngest child who’s now 53, was either the first or the second waitress at El Gringo,” Courtney said. “Erin is a playwright, she teaches playwriting in a master’s program at Northwestern, she’s won an Obie Award for the Best Play off-Broadway, and she’s had 12 plays put on back in New York City. She’s a brilliant, brilliant young lady. But she cannot add. El Gringo’s was her first job, and she was probably a freshman in high school, and literally, she had trouble with the menu. So she would just charge $1 for everything.”
Brian Byhower took note that her receipts were all perfectly even numbers, $1, $2, $3, and took her aside, noting that the menu had items with a lot of different prices. “Yeah,” she said. “But that’s confusing.”
“And then, you know, she got the orders screwed up,” Courtney recalled. “Like, if you wanted enchiladas and she brought you tacos or whatever and you’d say, ‘I didn’t order this,’ she says, ‘Ah, it’s all the same stuff.’ I don’t know why she never got fired.¨
This was a management ethos of a sort, one that gave the kids doing the work at El Gringo not quite free run of the place, but definitely a wide sway to still be kids. Graw’s management style wasn’t perhaps quite as laissez-faire, but it followed the same principle. He’d learned the importance of allowing a crew to be a crew when he was a high school employee and made sure that fun was a part of the El Gringo employee experience. This, it turned out, also made for better employees.
“One of the things El Gringo has always done, and anybody who’s ever gone to an El Gringo notices, is that I leave the staff to do it,” he said.
“Because if you give an employee a short leash, they’re not going to react very well. If you give them a longer leash, but you still have them on a leash, they tend to fight against management. But if you give them an extraordinarily long leash, they’ll step up and perform. And what always blows my mind is that you could have a 25-year-old server with a 19-year-old to-go girl and a 16-year-old busser, and they work together every Friday night…Then on Sunday, I’m on my bike on the Strand, and I see those same three girls walking down The Strand together.”
The El Gringo crew
The result was multiple generations of El Gringo crews that became so close they were like family. Ashley Johnsen Garchitorena was a part of one such crew. She started working at El Gringo right out of high school and quickly became part of a crew that remains friends to this day.
“There were like five of us,” she said. “It was after Bill kind of first took over. We had fun. We partied and raged and we ran that place, like with our eyes closed. I mean, Fourth of July we’d be on The Strand, you are skating all day and we’d be like, ‘Shit! It’s 3:45! Hurry!” And charge up the hill, rolling in with our skates on, change real quick and start working. I became really close with everybody who worked there, too….So it was really like a family, and it’s like a real local hang. There’d be times where I’d be waitressing and my grandpa would drive by and yell out the window, ‘Meet me at the Mermaid when you get off!’”
Casey Chiapettia Elliott, who was part of that same crew, looks back and realizes she learned a lot about management from her days at El Gringo.
“He was giving us a lot of freedom, like the freedom to wear what you wanted. It seemed casual, but at the same time there was enough direction to be able to execute everything you needed to,” she said. “And it was just a local family feel.”
In today’s corporate lingo you’d call it worker empowerment, but to El Gringo crews, it just meant coming to a workplace where that was something more than just a job. Ashley and friend Heather Archer, for example, came to work one day hungover and made themselves an impromptu burrito with a few random things they thought would make them feel better, including pollo negro, eggs, avacado, and green sauce. Soon after, that burrito made the menu as “Asher” and remains on the menu today. And as much as the crew had fun together, when they got slammed, they worked seamlessly, together.
“It would be Memorial Day and Bill would be like, ‘Hey guys, I´m checked out. I’m on the beach. I am doing my thing,’” Johnsen Garchitorena recalled. “Then the ice machine would break or the fridge would break. The cook, who had a nickname for me, would be like, ‘Chichona, what are we going to do?’ We’d have to scramble and use our resources, whether it was running across the street to Critters, and ask, ‘Do you guys have a refrigerator repairman?’ or ‘What’s the ice guy’s number?’ We’d just handle it, just bond together, and make sure we were keeping the restaurant afloat.”
Behind the scenes there may have been slight mayhem, but out in the restaurant the reggae was still going, the servers were grooving, and the relaxed El Gringo vibe prevailed. Few realized, until much later, that they were being mentored.
“If Bill saw me messing up, or going down the wrong path, he’d sit me down. ‘Look, this is not the way you should be going.’ He was straight with me and a really great inspiration and friend and boss,” Johnsen Garchitorina said. “If I needed anything, I knew I could count on him. He had these little ‘Bill-isms’, you know, because he studied psych at USC or wherever. He always comes up with these little couple liners that would make you really think…’Wait, you are doing your Bill-ism’ thing, trying to make my mind go one way while you are challenging me to see what my reaction is going to be.”
“I mean, don’t get me wrong. He definitely fired me a couple of times. I’d call him, ‘Are you ready to rehire me?’ And he’d say, ‘Of course I am.’”
Johnsen Garchitorina eventually became a manager and helped open the Redondo and El Segundo restaurants, flying to Mexico to find art to use in the decor. She also met her husband, Eddie, while working a shift at El Gringo Hermosa, and they shared their first kiss just outside the restaurant. She worked there while pregnant with her first child, a daughter who is now 14 (an El Gringo candidate), and until a few months before she had her second child, who is now an 8-year-year-old boy. Graw frequently told her, “Ash, you should start your own place.”
Chiapettia Elliott, who worked at El Gringo for 11 years, last year just did that, founding the Lomita Alehouse. She said Graw has continued to mentor her throughout the entire process, and not a day goes by that she doesn’t think about what she learned at El Gringo.
“Bill gave me a work ethic I never knew I had,” she said. “He put me to a standard without micromanaging. You knew what you had to get done. He was a great mentor in every sense, and still is.”
She’s modeled a lot of how she runs the Alehouse after Graw’s management style, and also brought a direct part of El Gringo with her — the Pollo Negro salad, which Graw graciously allowed her to replicate.
“So I brought a little bit of Hermosa with me,” she said. “I was honored he let me do that.”
A lot of former employees will be stopping by this week. The reports are that an upscale restaurant from downtown Manhattan Beach will take over the building, so everyone is trying to soak in the very last of El Gringo Hermosa.
“I am definitely going to cry,” Chiapettia Elliott.
Graw is both unsentimental and sentimental about the end of this era.
“It is bittersweet,” he said. “It’s bitter, because the time has come. It has come to the end of its life based on our sales, based on how much we can charge versus what the terms of the lease are. But the sweetness is everything that we accomplished, and that includes being part of the community. It is bittersweet, but the bitter is not even close to the sweet, right? It’s been an awesome ride.”
Sometime late Friday night, Graw will walk through the place one last time while it is still El Gringo, and then he’ll lock the door and walk away. Sometime in the not too distant future, he’ll pull up a stool at Critters (now North End) and take a good long look at that building.
“The building and I have a personal relationship,” he said. “The building is like a boat, meaning that it’s so old, and so close to the water that it is in constant need of repair. It is iconic. Certainly no one would ever build that building today. I would go in there often at 10 at night to do repairs and leave in the morning. That building never, ever failed to challenge me. It was a love-hate relationship…But the love? I think that building attracts a certain type of person, and I was one of them.”