When Chris (center) and Jerry (right) Rongos opened Salud! Tapas N Tequila in southwest Fort Wayne, they wanted to bring a new kind of restaurant to the area. The eatery, which shares a kitchen with its sister and neighbor establishment, Salsa Grille, serves up Latin-inspired small plates, tequila flights and craft cocktails, and a seasonally refreshed menu. Almost a year after opening, the concept is off and running; Salud! recently earned five stars from the Journal Gazette’s food critic and, better yet, customers like it. “People are really getting excited,” says Chris.
The brothers, along with their cousin Roulie Mangos (left), own and operate not only Salud!, but also George’s International Market, Salsa Grille and George’s LaBaguette. In a recent conversation, Chris and Jerry shared their insights on the family business and its path to success.
Chris: Believe it or not, we celebrated 30 years in the food service business last April. Our dad, George, frequented a fruit market across the street from Slater Steel where he used to work. He just came home one day and told our mother, “I’m going to open an international grocery store so people won’t have to go to Chicago to buy ethnic food.” He bought the market in 1985 and turned it into George’s International Grocery. We’ve been growing and expanding ever since—the entrepreneurial spirit is in our blood!
Chris: Everything we learned was from our dad. He taught us common sense and the value of hard work. You have to be willing to sacrifice. Work hard and it will pay off. It’s also really important to learn how to recognize opportunity and then expand it to its potential.
Jerry: So many people have helped us along the way, from staff to customers to the community. And we really couldn’t have done it without our cousin Roulie, who’s our CFO. With him handling the financial end, we can spend more time on the floor and with customers.
Jerry: We didn’t want to be the same old Tex-Mex place. We wanted something unique, with a Latin flair. Local chef Matt Nolot helped us perfect our recipes, and what you’ll really notice is how fresh everything is. We don’t cut a bag open for anything, we hand cut our meats, and even our salsas are made fresh every day. We also use local vendors whenever we can—especially George’s International Grocery—to keep everything as fresh as possible.
Chris: We also bring an attention to detail that people normally don’t get in casual fine dining. For example, we make our guacamole to order table side, with lots of ingredients you won’t find elsewhere.
Chris: [Laughs.] We have our moments. But really, we have different jobs and we each do our own thing. I mostly handle the restaurant side and Jerry handles the grocery and bakery.
Jerry: So far, it has worked out great for us. We’ve surrounded ourselves with a great management team that can handle almost anything, so I’m always surprised at how much time we actually get to spend with our own families. I have four kids and Chris has three, so that part is crucial.
Jerry: Customers can already have the full experience at George’s. They can eat, visit the bakery, and take home groceries. We want to keep growing and enhancing that experience.
Chris: Food is coming back. People want fresh food, so it makes sense to continue in that direction. We recently took a trip to California, where we learned a lot about how to manufacture product. Don’t be surprised if you soon find us boiling and grinding our own corn to make fresh tortillas, and we might even let you watch. Stay tuned!