Know Your Neighbor: Ernie Chaires

I am in the business of selling food,” says Ernie Chaires, seated in a booth just after the lunch rush at his Rosepepper Cantina on Eastland Avenue.
     It’s a seemingly simple statement about a seemingly simple concept: people need to eat; you cook food for them. How hard can it be? But there must be more to it, since, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, three out of every five restaurants extinguish their stoves for good in the first three years. Rosepepper has been an East Nashville staple since 2001, and the Nashville Scene perennially proclaims it has the “Best Margarita” in Nashville. Chaires, 62, has been in the restaurant industry since 1970, owning his first restaurant, a franchise called El Taco, when he was 19. It’s a family business: His father retired from the Army out of Fort Campbell, Ky.—there’s the Nashville connection—and returned to his home in Tucson, where the Chaires patriarch fell in with other men who dreamt of a faster Mexican food restaurant which incorporated a new local concept called the “drive-through.”
     One of those men, Mr. Glen Bell, decided he had his own ideas for a menu, splintering from the group and throwing the word “Taco” in front of his last name. Maybe you’ve heard of it. “My dad, in his infinite wisdom, took the El Taco concept,” Chaires says, laughing.
     The family brought their concept, the first fast-service Mexican restaurant, to Nashville, and at its height there were seven El Taco restaurants spread between Nashville, Clarksville, and Fort Campbell. “All I knew is you worked 125 hours a week. That’s just what you did,” he says. The last restaurant standing, renamed Es Fernandos when the franchise dissolved, was on Gallatin just south of Briley Parkway for 37 years, and some of the art that hangs in Rosepepper came from its walls.
     “There’s a guy sitting at the bar over there,” Chaires says, nodding toward the back of Rosepepper. “He almost breaks out in tears because Es Fernandos doesn’t exist anymore.”
     But Ernie cashed out of the family business and moved with his wife to southern California, where the couple still owns a house. There, he says, he waited tables—a lot of tables, at three different restaurants—with the lofty dream of becoming a bartender. It was his wife, whom Chaires credits with making his career possible, that suggested he get a job at Taco Bell.
     Showing up late for the interview and without a tie, Chaires still wowed them. “They couldn’t believe somebody at that age had done what I said I had done for so long,” he says. He threw out a number, they accepted, and he became a corporate stiff for an embryonic 400- unit business. When an opportunity arose four years later to take over a seven-unit franchise, he slid back into the restaurateur life.
     “The exposure to what numbers in business meant is what I needed in life,” he says, looking back. “In this business, certainly it’s good will and it’s food. Yeah, I have it. But I’m more in the business end of it. I deal with people.”
     Seven Taco Bells grew into 25 after eight years. But it was family that brought Chaires back to Nashville.
     “I woke up one day, and I said, ‘I’m going to make [my father] an offer,’” he says. His father was considering closing Es Fernandos on Gallatin; instead, Chaires negotiated and bought the restaurant with the intent to franchise. After all, hadn’t he just turned seven stores into 25? The problem was, when Chaires arrived in Nashville on Dec. 5, 1994, citywide unemployment was between one and two percent: “You couldn’t hire fast food workers to save your soul,” he says, unless you were willing to pay almost twice the minimum wage. He couldn’t afford a workforce.
     Rosepepper, his plan “B,” is located on the site of an old diner, and Chaires says he wouldn’t have found it if it wasn’t for a traffic light at Eastland Avenue and Gallatin Pike. “If the light hadn’t turned red,” he says, Rosepepper wouldn’t be here.
     But the reason Rosepepper is still there is because of its employees. Sit at the bar on a typical night and you’ll probably meet Juanita, one of the managers. She was hired a week before the restaurant opened its doors in 2001, and it’s her Nebraskan family margarita recipe that has been voted best in town 12 years running. Or maybe you’ll meet Jordan, recently promoted to bartender. She was hired six years ago when she was 17, and says there’s a core group of staff members like her who have worked at Rosepepper five-plus years—a unique occurrence in the high-turnover food service industry.
     Possibly shedding light on why, according to Jordan, that if it gets too busy, Ernie rolls his sleeves and starts pulling orders.
     Chaires says his restaurant staff’s “tremendous tenure and strength” isn’t accidental: “I don’t see how [restaurant owners] could not see how important it is to treat your people fairly, to not coddle your people. And here’s the key, for me anyway: I am always, always trying to teach them and make them better.”
     And that’s just it: In East Nashville and in his business, Chaires is no longer becoming bigger at what he does; he’s becoming better.
     “Yeah, you can make more money with more units,” he says, “but I’m happy doing this.”