Juan Carillo Jr.’s mother Emily and father Juan Sr. came to California from Mexico as adolescents. They met and married there. The family moved from San Jose to Virginia when Carillo Jr. was 11. His father wanted to run his own business and came to Virginia to purchase Williamsburg’s La Tolteca, where his uncle was a chef. Open since 1989, Carillo’s father is still the owner.
“It was a culture shock in reverse,” Carillo Jr. says of moving across country. “I had a great time and looking at it from an adult standpoint, it was a good place to raise your children.”
Carillo worked in his father’s restaurant, taking chips and salsa to tables initially and bussing tables. As he got older, he waited tables and learned all of the kitchen duties.
“After graduation, I thought about doing something else besides the business,” he says. “But, for some reason I kept on coming back to it; this is what I am meant to do.”
In 2005, at the age of 23, Carillo branched out on his own and opened his first Juan’s in Gloucester. “I didn’t think I was too young, but I was,” he says with a smile. “The first few years were great, but then we faced a national recession. It really taught me a lot about business.”
Carillo opened Juan’s Mexican Cafe & Cantina at Hampton Town Center and King Street’s Juan’s Taqueria, focused mainly on take out with a smaller menu selection of fast fare. Subsequently, Juan’s Rooftop & Cantina opened on Richmond’s Broad Street, offering more of a nightlife vibe. This year Juan’s Taqueria & Cantina opened in Williamsburg close to the College of William & Mary.
Juan’s Mexican Cafe & Cantina opened in Newport News’ Jefferson Commons in 2015. Carillo says it was an incredible experience for him. When he hosted a friends-and-family night for the soft opening, he remembers dressing up and greeting his first customers. “Then, I started seeing the kitchen, took the coat off and didn’t leave the kitchen for more than three months,” he says of the experience.
The Gloucester location was busy, but the Newport News location was bigger and offered a larger demographic. He turned to friends who worked for Colonial Williamsburg. Their advice was that he work on mass production of his fare.
“We worked through the ins and outs of the kitchen and ramped it up to a higher level of production,” he says. “We needed bigger/more equipment and a larger staff.”
Today, Juan’s has164 employees, with 46 in Newport News. He prides himself on the longevity of his staff.
Looking at the menu, the “Big Juan,” a five-pound burrito, started as a joke. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was seen as a family-sized burrito,” he says of its growth in popularity.
Carillo believes his restaurants stay true to the diversity of Mexican cuisine by thinking outside the box. For example, the restaurant offers an oyster taco, a play on a Po’ Boy with slaw and salsitas. “We do a lot of fusion with our menu offerings,” he says.
“I was pleased to see the Newport News’ location’s food was just as good and the atmosphere was just as nice as Gloucester’s,” an online reviewer says.
Juan’s caters extensively through all their locations. Carillo’s next venture is to turn his Gloucester property into a large warehouse and commissary to accommodate a higher production of prep work. “Before opening anymore locations, I would like to have my commissary ready,” he says. “Front of house would a grocery store-like; the back would be for food prep.”
“Our Newport News manager, Reimy Miquelarena, is doing great and has a dedicated team,” Carillo says. “All the cooks here are talented.” He is also pleased with Kenia Jimenez, assistant manager.
“My proudest achievement with Juan’s is being a staple in all the communities we serve,” Carillo says. He is happy to “give back” in appreciation for the support his restaurants receive. Juan’s gives to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). Last year, through an invitation to participate in “Man of the Year,” he raised significant funding against some impressive competitors.
Carillo loves to vacation in Mexico. where his father rents out his summer home in Cabo San Lucas. He’s been to Thailand and Russia, as well.
Awards? “We have received four of them, Carillo says with pride.
“Juan’s has been a beautiful experience for me,” Miquelarena says. “Juan’s is all about innovation and to me it is a home and a family.
TO THE POINT:
Juan’s Mexican Cafe & Cantina
Address: 561 Bland Blvd., Newport News, VA 23602
Contact: Reimy Miquelarena, manager