Family Values and Superb Customer Care Propel El Meson Sandwiches to the Top
El Meson Sandwiches, a Puerto Rico based business known for its pressed sandwiches with a Caribbean flair is expanding. It’s reached five Orlando restaurants that will launch the brand throughout the United States.
What started 44 years ago as a deli to feed hungry surfers at Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, has grown to include 37 restaurants on the island and a plan to break into Central Florida’s fastpaced, casual diner market. Orlando’s first El Meson opened in the Florida Mall Dining Pavilion in June 2015, and the second opened on West Osceola Parkway and Centerview Boulevard in April.
The restaurants have been so popular that El Meson President Felipe Pérez Grajales plans to open three more in Central Florida by 2017, then expand throughout the United States. Sales at the Florida Mall restaurant surpassed $1 million during the first six months of operation.
“The success far exceeded our expectations,” said Pérez Grajales, who added that there’s a 50-50 mix of Latin and American customers. “The reason we selected Orlando as our first U.S. location was not because of the Latin or Puerto Rican community. We wanted to prove we have a concept that works to serve the American market.”
The successful transition to the U.S. is remarkable for a Puerto Rican business, which often open stateside as “mom and pop” ventures. In 2012, El Meson was named one of the “Best Food Chains in the World” by Travel + Leisure magazine. The New York City magazine highlighted its thick, juicy sandwiches, along with all day breakfast and healthy vegetarian options.
Pérez Grajales explains that Latinos are accustomed to a hot meal, and he is thrilled that so many Americans and tourists are picking up on the trend. Market research defined a large Hispanic community in Orlando, but the restaurant’s success proves the menu appeals to a broader audience.
Though El Meson’s sandwiches are made on a variety of breads, their signature Criollo bread crafted from a family recipe is light, tender and slightly sweet in the Caribbean style. When pressed, the delicate crust gets crispy like Cuban bread. Customers choose from a variety of grilled meats like turkey, pork, pastrami and roast beef or soy-based protein that are layered with sliced cabbage, mayonnaise, a sweet sauce and butter. Wraps, salads, soups and full breakfast meals round out the menu, but the sandwiches are the top sellers. Both the Criollo bread and specialty El Meson Arabica espresso beans are imported from Puerto Rico.
“I honestly love El Meson,” said Orlando resident Jeannette Rivera-Lyles who enjoys their strong Arabica coffee grown in the mountains of Puerto Rico. “Their menu goes beyond the stereotypical medianoches and Cuban sandwiches to perfectly infuse all sorts of world flavors with a Latin flair. Their sandwiches are fresh, fairly priced and have tons of protein.”
El Meson’s American growth has brought employment to Central Florida and the new restaurants will bring another 150 jobs. The third El Meson is under construction at the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets and will open by the end of the summer. A location at Lee Vista Promenade near the Orlando International Airport is scheduled to open at the beginning of 2017, and Pérez Grajales is negotiating for a fifth restaurant near the Mall at Millenia. Two of the new restaurants will have a drive-thru.
The concept has come a long way since Don Felipe Pérez left the police force to open a small deli called El Meson de Felipe to help feed his wife and three children. It was near the most famous beach in Puerto Rico, and surfers often stopped in to eat a hearty breakfast or hot lunch. It was also next to Ramey Air Force Base and a steady stream of diners, so the family knew the concept appealed to American taste buds.
El Meson ran with few changes until Pérez’ oldest child and namesake graduated with a business degree from Jacksonville University in 1987 and teamed up with his younger brother, Gil. They embarked on a transformation that included a plan for future
growth, but they also insisted on keeping their father’s values and traditions: Finding the freshest ingredients and treating customers like family.
“We grew up in the restaurant,” said Pérez Grajales, who remembers serving sodas and cleaning tables at age 7. “There was no option to work; we had to work.”
We look for the right demographics, a corner location and the right neighbors,” said Pérez Grajales, who has designed the restaurants with arched entryways and Spanish Colonial and Caribbean ambiance.”
That work ethic and the family’s values and Catholic faith helped define the culture of the business. Pérez Grajales said his father led by example to convey his trustworthiness and treat both customers and employees as family members. The restaurant’s founder is retired at age 76, but proudly watches as his family business grows beyond what he ever imagined.