With Frank about to turn 80 and Nora approaching her 77th birthday, their son George said it is time for his parents to retire.
“Really and truly, I’ve been locked up here about 31 years,” Nora said Monday with a sigh.
John Dunn, owner of the College North Shopping Center, had asked Nora if she would like to manage the restaurant if he reopened what had been Don Juan’s.
She said she would. She had worked in one or another of the local Mexican restaurants all her adult life and having her own restaurant had always been a dream.
But she wanted to own the business, not just run it.
That opportunity came in 1993 when Nora and Frank decided they wanted to buy the business. Dunn agreed and the deal was closed that August.
Plans were to reopen in August of that year, but some tragic deaths in the family postponed that until Oct. 8.
“I was here but in reality I wasn’t here,” she said. She and other family members prepared for rosary services and funerals.
The quality that made Mi Familia a staple in Beeville was the involvement of family members.
The name means “My Family” in Spanish. Even the menu reflected that importance of family in the business. Family specials that diners could choose from included the Frank Junior, the George Special, the Mary Ann, the Larry Senior, the Leti Special, the Nora Alicia and the Tiesha Special.
On the kids’ menu, customers could choose from the Juliana, Larry Junior, Joshua, Michael, Frank III, Caileigh, Czrina, Chelsea, Cayla, Christopher Ryan, Christi’ana, Estrella and C.J. Kids Burger.
For years, every member of the family worked in the restaurant at one time or another.
Nora said even her relatives visiting from California worked when they came to Beeville.
“They were on vacation, but they worked when they were here,” she said.
The workers included the five Benavides children, the 10 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and lots of brothers, sisters and in-laws.
And there’s always been the family history displayed prominently on the wall for everyone to see as they enter the business – old photos of family members growing up, working, going to school.
Also, there was the certificate announcing the fact that Nora and her offspring are the descendants of one of the Texans who died fighting Santa Anna’s army at the Alamo.
Nora’s great-great-great-grandfather was Gregorio Esparza, who served in Juan Seguin’s militia. Gregorio’s son, Enrique, was at the Alamo with his mother the night Gregorio was killed in the final assault on the old mission.
One of Gregorio’s sons, Manuel, was Nora’s great-great-grandfather.
“Rick Perry likes to boast that he’s a sixth generation Texan,” George said Monday. “Well, I’m a 13th generation Texan.”
Nora’s ancestors, the Leals, were among the original 15 families to come to Texas from the Canary Islands in 1731, George said.
“If it wasn’t for my job in Austin, I’d come down here, kick Mom and Dad out and run it,” George said of his mother’s dream.
But George has a good job in Austin, has lived there for 33 years and that is where his roots are now.
“It’s been a good business and it’s been very good to Mom and Dad,” George said. “I knew in my mom’s heart, she wanted to stay. But Dad, he was ready to go.”
Nora said she was disappointed to have to tell a loyal group of senior citizen women that she was closing the business. They were wondering where they will go now. Nora said she was always happy to have anything they wanted prepared for them, whether it was on the menu or not.
George had made up his mind to close the doors to the building by Dec. 31, if he could not find a buyer. Although Benavides had some good realtors working on finding a buyer, they all wanted the Benavideses to help them finance the purchase.
Finally, it was another restaurant owner who ended up making the best offer.
Benavides said Luis David Serna, owner of the Taqueria Vallarta chain, started appearing at Mi Familia to have coffee and look around.
Serna has five restaurants located in Goliad, Three Rivers, Kenedy and Karnes City, as well as a popular locale at 1611 S. Washington St. in Beeville.
One day Serna asked Frank if he would be interested in selling the place.
Frank jumped at the chance and negotiations began.
“We met Serna on the 8th or 9th (of December) and made a deal,” George said.
Nora said the best part about selling to Serna is that he wanted to keep everything as it is now, including the menu.
“The Mi Familia tradition will not be going away,” George said. Serna even wanted to keep the Benavides family photos on the wall. But Nora said those would have to go with them.
“He’s going to call the restaurant Mi Familia,” George said. Serna even sent his employees to Mi Familia to learn the Benavides way of cooking their dishes.
“Nobody sells enchiladas like we do,” Nora said.
At the end of December, Serna showed up at the restaurant with a check and George said that when the new owner left, he knew he had made the right decision.
“Serna gave Mom the check, walked out and Dad locked the door behind him. Then they both turned around, made the sign of the cross and said, ‘Thank you, Lord.’”
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.