El Camino, 1017 E State St., prides itself in making customers feel comfortable and treating them like family.

El Camino is a family-owned business owned by Lulu Lopez, her husband Juan and son Joshua. The family moved to Athens from Virginia in December 2015 and opened El Camino on February 8, 2016. 

Lopez said at first, it was hard to get everything put together and for Juan to teach everyone in the kitchen how to make authentic Mexican food. Near eight months after opening, the kitchen staff nailed the recipes and business increased.

“Everything is homemade,” Lopez said. “Nothing is precooked. Even the salsa and guacamole are made fresh here.”

Lopez said that during the business’ second and third years, it was a popular spot, especially on holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. Business also boomed during special weekends at Ohio University, such as Parents’ Weekend or Siblings’ Weekend. She said she and her family have developed relationships with customers and gained regular, loyal customers. 

The families and friends who regularly supported the business continued to do so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as they called in and asked for to-go orders. The restaurant was closed due to COVID-19 from March 16 to May 21.

“I want to say thank you to all the families and good friends who continued to support our restaurant during the closure,” Lopez said.

The day before the closure, Lopez and her family had a meeting with all of the El Camino employees, in which they informed them that they would continue to compensate them over the weeks of the closure. Lopez said most employees work 40-hour weeks and she wanted to continue to pay them so they could take care of their families. 

She also mentioned the difficulty it would have been to find new workers if they were to lose any due to the closure because they are fluent in both English and Spanish.

“We are different from Texas Roadhouse or Applebees because we are a small family business, and we work like a team to take care of the restaurant,” Lopez said.

Lopez said at El Camino, they treat customers like family. They create bonds with customers while calling them amigos, chicos or chicas and making them feel welcome and comfortable.

“We don’t have the best advertisements,” Lopez said. “It’s the customers who spread the word about us. They tell their friends, ‘Let's go there.’”

Lopez has been in the restaurant business for 29 years and Juan has worked in the kitchen for 20 years. Lopez said she and her husband learned flavors and how to treat customers with respect by working for other people. They worked at restaurants in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia before opening up their own in Athens.

Lopez said many people choose Gran Ranchero over El Camino because El Camino does not have its liquor license, but customers are welcome to bring their own drinks and the restaurant will provide glasses to pour them in.

Lopez said that at a small business, the owner is there all the time because they care for their customers and want to make them happy. El Camino always has someone within the Lopez family at the restaurant.

Lopez’s nephew, Emmanuel Valadez, works at El Camino, covering anywhere from the front desk to the kitchen. He is a freshman at OU from Gallipolis, Ohio, where his family owns their own Mexican restaurant. Valadez said that there is more of an emotional connection between him and El Camino than there would be at any other job because his aunt and uncle are his bosses. 

“Since it’s my family, I actually care instead of it just being a job,” Valadez said.

Valadez said he believes El Camino is one of the better Mexican restaurants in Southeast Ohio.

Walker Shaffer, a host at El Camino, has worked at the restaurant for a year and a half. He mentioned that he likes the fact that the restaurant is family-owned because he works directly for the owners unlike at corporate-owned restaurants. Shaffer said the dining area of El Camino is officially back to full capacity and regular seating arrangements since the start of COVID-19.

“I don’t like to talk trash about the other Mexican places, but I think we have better food,” Shaffer said.