Wausau Pilot & Review

Editor’s note: Business of the Week is a sponsored feature that shares the stories of locally-owned and operated businesses in the Wausau area, highlighting the products and services they offer and the ways they contribute to the metro area’s unique flavor. Learn how to feature your business by emailing christina@wausaupilotandreview.com.

Roy Romano stands outside his restaurant, El Tequila Salsa, in April 2013. Photo: Christina Kimball/Wausau Pilot & Review

This week’s featured business is El Tequila Salsa, an authentic Mexican restaurant launched in 2008 by Roy Romano. The restaurant’s brightly-colored walls are fashioned after those found widely in Romano’s hometown of Puebla, the city in central Mexico where he was raised by his grandparents and aunts. There, he learned a love of good food and great tequila while enjoying a deeply spiritual connection to his country and his family. With El Tequila Salsa, Romano brings not just the taste of traditional Mexican food but a strong commitment to sharing the culture of Mexico with his many patrons. Here’s what he had to say about his restaurant, what he learned through the years and what makes it truly unique.


Q: When was your business established, and what prompted you to start?

Romano said he started his business in 2008 – just before the recession hit. The restaurant was borne of a desire to share a love of authentic, fresh food with residents in the Wausau area. He was inspired by the cooking of his grandmother and his four aunts, who taught him about high quality food and the importance of not cutting corners when it comes to quality and service. Fiery chili peppers, bright red tomatoes, creamy avocado, fresh cilantro, tangy lime, sweet onions and varied spices blend perfectly with the highest quality meat and seafood for a culinary experience that transports patrons to lands far away. But for Romano, opening the restaurant was about much more than food. It’s about his passion for sharing the culture of Mexico.

Q: How did you choose the name of your business? What are you trying to convey?

El Tequila Salsa is named for Romano’s trademark array of 19 salsas and nearly 100 varieties of tequila, two crucial elements of his business. His salsas, freshly prepared each day, complement specific menu items and daily specials. But the tequila is something he clearly feels passionate about. Romano recalls the first time he saw someone drink a shot of tequila, make a face, then chase it with a lime.

“If you need something to cover up the taste, you’re not drinking good tequila,” Romano said. “I knew I needed to sell better tequila.”

And sell better tequila he did. After adding dozens of brands to his bar offerings, he still wasn’t satisfied. That’s when he had his own signature brand created – Maestro Dobel Diamante tequila, which he sells by the shot, in signature cocktails like the “Between You and Me,” and by the bottle to customers who try it and are immediately hooked by the unexpected flavor. Aged in oak barrels, the tequila is silky smooth, without any need for salt or lime. Romano buys two barrels each year, each of which produce about 240 bottles. And he sells every one of them.

Q: What makes your business unique? What sets you apart?

Aside from the tequila and the salsa, Romano said his restaurant stands out because of the truly authentic flavors in the menu and his commitment to using fresh foods. Every morning, workers from his kitchen arrive hours before the restaurant opens to begin prepping for the day. Vegetables are chopped each day. That means the peppers in the fajitas stay crunchy, onions don’t turn to water and nothing sits for more than a day. Frying oil is changed frequently, resulting in crisper chips with less grease. Ingredients are always fresh, never frozen, including the meats. Romano said he is well aware that he could turn a higher profit by ordering frozen foods, such as frozen chicken, but he believes strongly in the importance of a fresh, healthy product. He hired a chef with decades of experience and refuses to serve anything he wouldn’t eat himself.

“I wanted a restaurant I could eat in every day,” Romano said. “A place my family could eat every day. Part of the culture is showing people how we eat, and I knew we had to do it right. If I don’t eat it, I don’t sell it.”

Q: How have you changed and evolved over time? What’s different now from when you first started?

As for changes, Romano said he works hard to change up daily specials to ensure there is something exciting and new for patrons to try. He’s added live music with bands that play in the bar on certain nights to add to the lively atmosphere: Double Vision, a popular local duo, performs every second Friday of the month. The garage door, added several years ago to the building, allows for an open-air experience even when indoors, when weather allows. And the patio on the east side of the building is especially popular in the warmer months of the year. But what has not changed, Romano said, is the same commitment to quality he’s had from the beginning.

Q: What challenges have you had to overcome?

When El Tequila Salsa opened its doors in 2008, Romano could not have known that the country was about to plunge into a recession. It would have been tempting for just about any restaurant owner to shut down as joblessness skyrocketed and people struggled financially. But instead of closing, Romano said he chose to pray. And then he instructed his staff to focus on making customers forget their troubles, rather than dwelling on them.

“I thought, let’s make people forget about the recession when they walk through the door,” Romano said. “Panic is the enemy of the mind.”

Instead of worrying about the future, Romano and his staff were determined to smile, make customers feel welcome and let them revel in the flavor of fantastic food, letting them feel – if just for an hour or two – that everything would be okay. He took the same stance during the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown.

“We focused on the business, on providing for our families,” he said. “God teaches us through the bad.”

Q: What are you most proud of accomplishing?

Romano said he’s proud he’s learned from his mistakes, overcome early challenges and emerged with a restaurant that provides for not only his family, but for the families of those who work for him.

“God is involved,” he said. ” I thank God for not letting me fail.”

Location

El Tequila Salsa, 151522 County Road NN, Rib Mountain

Phone 715-298-3277

Visit the El Tequila Salsa website for menu details and online ordering information here. Follow the restaurant on Facebook here.