By Greg Yepremian
La Cocina Mexicana has been Kutztown’s only Mexican restaurant for a long time. La Cocina, as it is commonly known, will have been open for 18 years as of this September.
Owner Salvador Quintero, a native of Mexico, has lived in Berks County for 39 years and has run the restaurant since it opened on Sept. 7, 2001. According to Quintero, owning a restaurant has always been his goal.
Quintero moved from Mexico to Berks County at 17 years old with his father, who had been making annual visits to the U.S. during Quintero’s childhood.
Prior to opening La Cocina, he worked as a dishwasher and then as a waiter from 1985 to 1986 but otherwise had no restaurant experience in management or cooking.
“I had worked in corporate for years, and I had always wanted to open my own business, so I was looking for opportunities,” said Quintero.
“Eventually, 17 years ago, an opportunity came up in Kutztown. I thought it was the right time, in the right place and with the right people. There was no other Mexican restaurant in Kutztown, and I thought the community would appreciate it,” said Quintero.
“Growth has been slow, but it is mostly steady business,” said Quintero. According to him, business is at its highest when school is in session at KU. Quintero said he appreciates the fact that students come to his restaurant.
“During the months [the university is open] I make money. I’m making money for the months I don’t.”
Eric Bittenbender, a student at Kutztown University, started going to La Cocina this past year. “I lost my enchilada virginity here, and that is a good thing,” said Bittenbender.
“I don’t advertise; there’s not enough money to,” said Quintero. “I stopped 10 years ago or more. It was not worth the money.”
Quintero believes that word-of-mouth is more effective than advertising. “If a restaurant is good, then people will spread the word to friends, family, coworkers. That is the best advertisement.”
Quintero believes there are several reasons for La Cocina’s long-term success.
“I believe it’s good food, good service and being honest to people that we make everything homemade, and the food is authentic. It’s not Tex-Mex,” said Quintero.” It’s real Mexican food, and everything is prepared here.”
His vision for La Cocina Mexicana is for it to be authentically Mexican. “The atmosphere I wanted to create was like you go to Mexico without taking a plane, and you walk out and you’re back in your hometown,” said Quintero. “If you look, I decorated this place to reflect that. I wanted to really make it feel like Mexico here, and I think the authentic food also helps make this atmosphere.”
The interior of the restaurant is decorated with various forms of art from Mexico: masks hanging on walls, small sculptures, large murals—including one of a skeletal mariachi band playing—and bright colors including pinks, greens and yellows.
Despite the long-stay La Cocina Mexicana has enjoyed in Kutztown, it is not without its challenges.
“Every day is a challenge. What am I going to do if I have to make a new menu? How am I going to fit a new item on the menu? Is everyone going to be able to come to work today? These kinds of things I deal with every day,” said Quintero.
After leaving briefly to answer a phone call, Quintero came back and chuckled. “See? That was one of our staff saying he wouldn’t be able to come in today.”
Quintero is a rare sight in the restaurant, but he is there most days. “I spend most of my time in the back, in the kitchen. I prefer to stay in the kitchen, but I know I have to run things from the front sometimes, so I do.”