Business Feature: Leal’s celebrates 50 years of spice

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Quannah Saiz, left, and Monica Lott of Clovis have lunch Monday at Leal’s restaurant on Mabry Drive. The pair said they’ve been coming to Leal’s for years.

By Tonya Fennell: CNJ staff writer

Sergio Leal begins each day at 4:30 a.m. making homemade tortillas in Muleshoe. From there the tortillas are distributed to Leal’s Mexican Food Restaurants throughout New Mexico and Texas.

All five of the Leal’s restaurants, which include two Clovis locations, and a salsa and tortilla chip business, are owned and operated by Leal family members.

The family is celebrating 50 years in the restaurant business this year. “It’s been a good experience,” Sergio Leal said.

Jesse and Irma Leal opened a tortilla factory in 1957 in Muleshoe. According to the family’s history at lealsmexicanfood.com, Irma saw a need for traditional Mexican food due to the influx of braceros, or Latin American migrant workers, who were brought into the area to tend cattle, pick vegetables and dig potatoes.

In 1968, the couple opened “El Nuevo Leal’s Restaurant” on West American Boulevard in Muleshoe. The family said the menu began small, but customers soon began ordering their own combinations.

Today the menu still features those combinations — each bearing its creator’s name.

Sergio Leal, 39, said he and his five siblings grew up in the restaurant business.

“We would make tortillas after school in elementary and junior high,” he said. “That was our deal.”

The Leal children progressed to bussing tables, helping in the kitchen and waiting on tables, Sergio Leal said. “We were always right there with mom and dad,” he said.

A father of five, Sergio Leal said the business has grown substantially over the years, but has still remained strictly a family business. Jesse and Irma’s daughter, Alma, and her husband assist wherever they are needed, while granddaughter Heather oversees the Plainview, Texas, restaurant.

Laura Leal operates both Clovis locations and Victor Leal owns the original Muleshoe restaurant and the newest location in Amarillo with his wife Debbie. Abel, the youngest of the bunch, runs a retail salsa and tortilla chip business in Dallas, Texas, with his wife Marcie.
Although all the Leal children have chosen to follow in their parents’ footsteps, Sergio Leal said it was never expected of them.

“Our dad always told us there were other ways to make money,” Sergio Leal said. “This can be a hard business with 16-to 18-hour days.”

But the matriarch of the family is proud of the 50-year family tradition.

“The kids are in business,” Irma Leal said. “Everything is good.”