By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Nov 11, 2014 at 11:02 AM

For Jose Zarate, restaurant ownership has been a series of ups and downs. The once-packed Walker’s Point La Fuente has struggled over the past five years and is no longer a hotbed of nightlife for both urban and suburban dwellers.

Whether or not La Fuente will spring back to what it once was is unknown, but Zarate is not giving up. He continues to work hard – and the addition of La Fuente restaurants in Wauwatosa and Waukesha, as well as an evolving 5th Street in Walker’s Point – have him feeling more optimistic about the future.

Recently, he sat down with OnMilwaukee.com and spoke about his background, his family and his eateries.

OnMilwaukee.com: Where were you born and when did you come to the United States?

Jose Zarate: I was born in Mexico, three hours south of the Texas border, and raised in Mexico City. At 18, I moved to the United States for a better life, for work and for more opportunities. I lived in California, Houston, Chicago and finally, Milwaukee.

I came to Milwaukee to work in the tanneries in 1976. I worked at Gebhardt and later at Pfister and Vogel. I also worked in the foundries – Aluminum Casting in Bay View and another on the North Side.

OMC: So how did you transition into the restaurant business?

JZ: I bought this building (625 S. 5th St.) in 1983. I got a pretty good deal and I was going to UWM at the time and I needed money to pay for school. So I lived upstairs with my parents and rented this space (where La Fuente is today).

It was a bar first and then the owners of Acapulco restaurant had a lounge in here for about a year. In about 1986, Rudy (Barrago) from Rudy’s Mexican Restaurant moved in. He was located on 6th Street right behind us and he came over and asked if I would lease this place to him, and I did. In 1990, Rudy bought the building next door, remodeled it and moved Rudy’s there. So I ended up with an empty building.

I talked to Conejito (Jose Garza, owner of Conejito’s restaurant who passed away in 2011) and a couple other people, but no one was interested and so I ended up running it, opening La Fuente out of necessity. I could not afford to have an empty building so I said, "Let’s see what happens." And here we are today.

OMC: What were the early days of La Fuente like?

JZ: It was a struggle. It was not a success right away. I kept my day job for a year and a half. We wouldn’t break even many days. I’d get out of work, go home, shower and come here trying to hustle customers to come in. I stood outside, Mexican style, with my menu trying to get Rudy’s customers to come inside and try our food. I’d say, "Look, try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay."

Rudy was very busy, and his customers parked in the lot next to La Fuente (now La Fuente's northern-most dining room and patio), but we were empty. They would see me and cross the street so they did not have to walk past me on their way to Rudy’s. It was really hard.

We were in our last days of business. My money was running out, my savings dried up, I didn’t finish college, I felt like I needed to do something. And then, they just started coming. At first, they just came for our food, but not our drinks. They liked Rudy’s drinks better. We were not real busy, but people continued to come over here and eat and then one day, that changed, too. 

OMC: For a long time, the restaurant was just one room. When and why did you expand?

JZ: Yes, at first it was just the middle room. We only had 20 tables. But we were very successful for a while, we were packed. People would wait for hours. People liked it – they would come and wait outside. To me it was strange. But it was a good strange.

However, we outgrew the space. We were over capacity some nights. I needed an emergency exit. And so, even though I did not want to expand – I was afraid to spend the money – but I had to so we could raise our capacity. I bought the parking lot next door and built that room (to the north of the original space) in 1995. And we were still packed.

Around 1998, Rudy’s closed. I bought the place and expanded again (to the south.) That was a major effort. We added the second floor. The original Rudy’s bar is still in the space.

OMC: Do you use the second floor space anymore?

JZ: At one time it was open every weekend, but now we use it for special events and functions. Things are not what they used to be.

OMC: Where were your customers coming from?

JZ: They were mostly suburbanites. There were a lot of people from around here, too, but so many from the suburbs.

OMC: What attracted them here?

JZ: I really don’t know.

OMC: When did business start to slow down any why? Was it the competition of other Mexican restaurants?

JZ: In 2007 or 2008. I don’t think it was competition. I think restaurants in general suffered during those years. A lot of customers got older and they left. And also there are a lot more restaurants, not just Mexican restaurants, all over the place.

OMC: Are you optimistic about the future of 5th Street?

JZ: I am. The street is changing. Brenner Brewing is bringing something new to the street. I’m a Miller guy, but I really love his beers.

OMC: When did you open the other two locations?

JZ: I opened the Tosa La Fuente in October of 2010 when I realized the first La Fuente was going to take a long time to turn around.

OMC: Did you think about closing the first location at the time?

JZ: No, this is my baby. It’s like when you have a favorite car, even if it's all beat up, it’s been faithful to you. It got you where you needed to go. And even when you get a new car, you can’t get rid of the old car because it was so good to you. We’ve put a lot of effort into this place. We learned so much from this place.

OMC: When did you open the Waukesha location?

JZ: In May of 2012.

OMC: All of the food is made here and brought to the other locations, right?

JZ: Yes. People say they think the food’s better in Tosa or in Waukesha than it is here, but the truth is, it all comes from here.

OMC: Think you’ll open any more restaurants?

JZ: I don’t know. I thought I was tired before, but who knows.

OMC: You own the building across the street from the Walker’s Point La Fuente, too?

JZ: Yes. I did a lot of work on that building. It was Hemingway’s and now Kana. I also own the old Casa Monreal on 1st Street. I set up a business there, a higher-end Mexican restaurant called Santos, but that didn’t work out. It was open for a year. I don’t know why, but it just didn’t work out.

OMC: Were you friends with Rudy? Were you competitive? What about other Mexican restaurant owners in the neighborhood?

JZ: I always got along with Rudy. He was a little older than me. JoAnn (Anton, from La Perla) and I work together well and the owner of Botanas is related to me. His wife is my daughter’s aunt. It’s an incestuous relationship over here. (Laughing.)

Conejito (Garza) was always good to me. And Frank (Monreal) was, too. Through the years, they came in here a lot. Frank came in here once and told me, "I would like you to buy my restaurants." That was the end of it.

Then he passed away and a year later, his widow called me, and she said, "Jose, Frank told me to sell the place on 1st Street to you." I ended up buying it because Frank had put a lot of effort in that place and I thought I should buy it. Nobody else cared about that place and so, I did. In 2010, she called me up again. She said she didn’t want to run El Matador anymore, and since Frank had told her to sell his businesses to me, she wanted to sell it to me. I ended up buying that place, too. (It is now the Tosa La Fuente.) That’s how it works.



OMC: Do you do any of the cooking?

JZ: No, I’m a foundry man. But I have washed a lot of dishes and bussed a lot of tables here.

OMC: Are you married? Have kids?

JZ: Yes, I am married. I have a 28-year-old daughter and 12- and 3-year-old boys. We live in Mequon.

OMC: What do you like to do when you’re not working?

JZ: The only time I am not working is when I’m in Cuba. My wife is Cuban and we go to visit her family once a year for a month. We used to go twice a year, but now the kids are busy with school. We rent a car and go all over. It’s fun. There is so much culture there. But if I’m here, I have to work.

OMC: I hear you play the guitar?

JZ: I sing better than I play guitar. Can we move on? I don’t like to talk about myself. I feel uncomfortable.

OMC: How do you feel about Silk (strip club) opening in the neighborhood?

JZ: I have no problems with it. I think it’s a good business.

OMC: How has the La Fuente menu changed over the years?

JZ: We’ve added new things – new appetizers – but the most popular items remain the same: the chimichangas, burritos, enchiladas and our shrimp soup. My favorite is the chili rellenos and the No. 13, the steak tacos.

OMC: Are frozen margaritas as popular as they were or are people moving toward craft cocktail type drinks?

JZ: The frozen margaritas are still popular here. Especially the rainbow ones. But we still win awards for our classic magartitas, too.

OMC: Where does the name La Fuente come from?

JZ: 

To me "la fuente" (which is "fountain" in Spanish) means something that springs forward and to me, that means it’s the source of a lot of things. So, in my case, that means a source to take care of my family, a source of employment, a source of entertainment. I told Milwaukee Magazine once it was because there was a restaurant in Mexico City called La Fuente, but that’s not why. (Laughs.)

OMC: What have you learned over the years operating so many businesses?

JZ: I have opened up some successful restaurants, and some that have failed. And when you fail, you want to go home and crawl under a rock. That happens to everyone, I guess. But when it works out, it’s fun. It’s very fulfilling. The loyalty and hard work of my family has helped me so much. Some have been with me since the beginning. These are real family restaurants.

Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.

As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.

She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that. 

Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.

Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.

In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!

When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.