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Business sense in the genes for owner of El Chile

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

At age 10, Carlos Rivero turned his paper route into a chance to mow lawns, clean cars and sweep driveways. In high school, while other kids were hanging out at the pool, the Bolivian-born self-starter started a valet parking service in San Antonio. While at the University of Texas and then Texas State University, Rivero didn't socialize a lot and barely completed a degree in psychology.

"I was always more interested in turning a buck," he says. "But I promised my mother before she passed away that I would finish college no matter what."

That transactional drive might help explain how the low-key, perpetually smiling Rivero, 42, could transform a local valet job during college into a career waiting tables, flipping houses and eventually building his own string of Austin cafes — all before turning 40. Among his current casual dining spots are such crowd-charmers as El Alma, El Chile, El Chilito and Flat Top Burger Shop.

Eventually, that drawn-out college degree helped, too.

"Psychology comes in handy in the restaurant business," he jokes. "Lots of facilitating."

To some extent, Rivero inherited his business sense and his diplomatic ease. His now-deceased father, Mario Rivero, a military pilot, served as a liaison between the Bolivian and U.S. air forces. His mother, Isabel Garza Rivero, was his father's English teacher. Later, she ran her family's San Antonio food business.

Rivero's grandfather had started a tortilla factory on that city's West Side. Years later, Ideal Mexican Food went nationwide, then was purchased by H-E-B in the 1980s. By happenstance, Carlos Rivero's first paycheck job was bagging and checking groceries for the San Antonio chain.

Family business links endure. His sister, Maribel Rivero, serves as marketing and special events director for El Chile Restaurant Group.

Carlos Rivero began his Austin ascendency while at UT. At an Austin Club fundraiser for Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, he noticed an awkward parking situation. When he inquired about it, the private club made Rivero director of valet parking. When not otherwise employed by the club, he absorbed tricks of the trade in its kitchen.

"They wouldn't hire me to wait tables," he says. "The waiters had been there for 40 years. They were not going to let some 18-year-old do their business."

He nonetheless landed service jobs at top culinary spots including Jeffrey's and Zoot. Meanwhile, he bought houses, remodeled them and put them on the market.

"I just hustled," Rivero explains. "My grandparents were frugal. My mother was frugal. I'm frugal."

At those Austin fine-dining vanguards, he studied up on European wines, preparation that helped when he transferred to the Washington, D.C., edition of Jeffrey's, a favorite of former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush.

"Jeffrey's was an extra-special place," he says. "An experience of a lifetime."

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ended his D.C. adventure.

"I freaked out and wanted to come home," he says. "Bombs were falling out of the sky. The general feeling was: Let's get the hell out of here."

In 2003, Rivero opened El Chile on Manor Road. Conceptually, he positioned the upscale Mexican spot somewhere between the baroque lushness of Fonda San Miguel and the sleek modernity of Manuel's. Within weeks, the long wait for tables at El Chile was the stuff of Austin social chatter.

"It was my dream come true," he says. "I wanted to give a nod to my heritage. Many have followed us, so obviously there was a need."

He combined his aptitude for real estate with his culinary acumen to spin off more concepts. El Chilito, just down Manor Road, recalled the little taco stands from his San Antonio youth. Another nearby house became El Gringo, then Stortini and then Red House, the final incarnation felled by the Great Recession and interest in the land from some restaurant heavy hitters for the still-new Salty Sow.

Flat Top on Manor was Rivero's long-awaited foray into burgers. He found new sites for El Chile and El Chilito, including an unlucky corner at Barton Springs and Dawson roads, which CNN Money had cited in a piece about cursed business locations. After trying both tried-and-true concepts there, he reopened the stuccoed joint as El Alma Cafe y Cantina with chef Alma Alcocer, formerly of Jeffrey's.

"That's what it's all about: people and money," he says. "And some luck."

The demands of the food biz conspire to keep Clarksville-based Rivero — who runs, swims and does Pilates — single. But despite the early closure of some outlets and the two tries that preceded El Alma's triumph, Rivero is in a good place.

"In the end we came out ahead," he says. "I'm a better operator. The party's not over."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com or 445-3970