Ofelia De La Paz breathes a little easier now when a large group of customers steps into the restaurant where she works.
After years of stretching to accommodate its increasing volume of guests, El Mezcal Mexican Restaurant has nearly doubled in size, an expansion Ofelia said she and her husband, Arturo, have waited nearly 10 years to see.
“Our problem was that it was a small sitting place,” Ofelia said of the dining establishment’s former size. “We always had people just standing around the cash register waiting for a table to sit.”
Owned by Arturo De La Paz and members of his extended family, El Mezcal has been part of the Norfolk business community since it opened in September 2005. Its menu includes Mexican food made from family recipes and draws its clientele from a range of ethnicities in the Norfolk community.
Its expansion comes after nearly a decade of waiting for the space next door to open up, and it’s something that might not have been expected at all by its owners during the first few months of the restaurant’s existence in Norfolk.
Ofelia said her husband got his start in the restaurant business when he moved from Arizona to Arkansas to take advantage of an opportunity offered by his uncles and cousins. Arturo started out as a dishwasher and then became a waiter before moving to Texas to manage a restaurant of his own.
When the Texas restaurant didn’t work out, Ofelia said her husband became an overseer of all of the family’s restaurants until the opportunity to open El Mezcal in Norfolk arose.
“They were making this brand new shopping center. They wanted to see if there was a place for them here,” Ofelia De La Paz said of the mini mall at 601 S. 25th St. “That’s how they came here to this town and started doing this at first.”
But the first seven or eight months of El Mezcal’s operation in Norfolk were tough times; Ofelia De La Paz said she remembers having barely enough money to pay the crew.
“(There was) not enough for us to get a paycheck. ... We were just thinking this is not going to work,” she said.
But then business started to pick up. And the restaurant’s volume of clientele began to grow. And grow. And grow.
“We were scared at first, but now we’re so happy,” Ofelia said. “We’ve been so happy for a long time, but it was hard when we started. We struggled, but we made it.”
Within about five years of opening, the restaurant was busting at the seams at mealtimes, and its ownership in the De La Paz family began asking the next-door neighbor — a money transfer business — about the possibility of El Mezcal expanding into that area.
“She said, ‘No way, Jose. We’re not going anywhere,’ ” Ofelia said.
She said the majority of customers expressed understanding whenever they had to wait to be seated, but the restaurant also lost business because of inadequate space.
“We would see the cars slow down and see that there was a lot of people waiting,” she said. “Now, no.”
In July, the owners of El Mezcal were presented with the opportunity to expand as the space next door became available. They readily accepted, and it took about a month of working day and night to complete the renovation and prepare it for use by the restaurant.
Ofelia said the expansion came with its share of risk. In addition to the money spent on the renovation of the space, the expansion required the addition of two members to the kitchen staff and three to its wait staff. But the growth was necessary for the comfort of El Mezcal’s customers, she said.
“We wanted to give it a try, especially for our customers,” she said. “To our surprise, it was good.”
The addition was unveiled Sunday, Oct. 6. While adequate parking in front of the business can pose a challenge during its busiest times, the restaurant has had no trouble filling the additional tables or accommodating larger groups.
“We’re so grateful,” she said. “People here in Norfolk have treated us so good.”