By Cole Dady, The Heights
Show a Boston College student the iconic picture of a mustachioed bald man with a bird on his shoulder, and they’ll almost surely identify the logo of beloved hotspot El Pelón Taqueria. The logo depicts Jim Hoben, the owner of the Commonwealth Ave. restaurant, his wife’s bird, Murray, and a distinguished piece of facial hair.
Hoben is not only personally responsible for the logo, but for the name itself. “Pelón,” a Spanish colloquialism denoting baldness, was a nickname that caught on over time as Jim’s employees always called him this jokingly.
The El Pelón next to BC opened out of necessity. Due to a 1998 fire at Hoben’s first restaurant, which was located at Fenway, he and his employees were displaced and forced to relocate. As a result of this incident, Hoben decided to create BC’s El Pelón, which turned out to be the perfect location for the Taqueria, directly across from a college campus full of students with an insatiable appetite for burritos.
Since the restaurant opened, it has always been a major hotspot for BC students. During the first year of business, the demand was overwhelming. Many times he was forced to close at 7 p.m., when they ran out of ingredients and could no longer feed the line of ravenous students. Hoben says that those lines were so long that they ran out the door, down the sidewalk, and blocked the B Line.
Hoben still has his second El Pelón outside Fenway Park but has never attempted to expand the restaurant into a large corporation. The reasoning comes from a simple idea Hoben has always held close to himself: quality over quantity.
To ensure that the quality of the food is consistent, all of El Pelón’s employees work in both locations. To keep it authentic, Hoben and his team never take short cuts, taking the time to source ingredients properly even if he is forced to sacrifice revenue along the way.
The menu has also evolved over the years largely due to customer feedback. Many of the items offered today originated from limited time offers at one point in time. Nonetheless, there is also a unadvertised “secret menu,” that only the initiated can enjoy. Hoben’s favorite item from the clandestine menu is the tamales.
The consistently scrumptious burritos and quesadillas stem, in part, from Hoben’s concern over keeping his employees motivated to craft high-quality food. Employees are paid a starting salary of $15 per hour and are always allowed to take food from the restaurant home to their families for dinner, thereby giving them a stake in the products they’re creating. For Hoben, this is the best way to create great food and run a good restaurant.
“The cost of making the food is a fraction of what it is to have [our employees] care,” he said.
Hoben studied philosophy and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He worked in restaurants in the past, and throughout college, he felt a strong draw toward a career in the food industry because he loved the camaraderie and wanted to avoid the boredom of working in a cubicle.
“Everyone wants to be big because they don’t know what enough is,” Hoben said.
He also feels that it is far too challenging to maintain healthy relationships with his customers and employees by growing to a large scale. He says that, while many businesses send out surveys to get customer and employee feedback, it is much easier to gain this information by walking to the cash register and talking directly to them.
This way, El Pelón has also maintained a strong alumni network from former employees who were BC students. Employees return to El Pelón over the years to tell Hoben that they learned far more about having a strong work ethic at the restaurant than they ever did through their coursework at school. He says that although students don’t necessarily become rich from working in a restaurant, their knowledge will translate into long-term success.
Hoben’s selfless approach to running his business has helped him create value for both his customers and employees. He has established El Pelón as a friendly, neighborhood restaurant. This also helps the restaurant maintain a reputable brand, even when mistakes occur.
Serving between 400 and 500 transactions each day at both locations, El Pelón’s employees are destined to make mistakes on the orders once in awhile. But what is important for Hoben is primarily on making sure customers are compensated well.
He often makes phone calls to customers who complain about a mistake made in an order, and also sends them handwritten notes with complimentary gift cards to apologize. In today’s digital age, this method has always proven effective to deal mistakes and maintain a reputation as being customer-focused.
El Pelón also differentiates itself through altruism, for Hoben has made sure that the restaurants support local small businesses. Guided by the simple idea of giving back to the community, the restaurants use smaller Boston-based vendors rather than the larger tycoons to source their ingredients, even if they are more accessible.
“In a small business, the main things on my mind are focusing on giving more to my customers and giving more to my employees and the community,” he said.
Within the BC community, students who commonly go to the restaurant envy the opportunity to have their photo featured on the photo wall. El Pelón’s photo wall features the restaurant-goers traveling to destinations across the world, be it the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower, and doing exciting things like skydiving, participating in an Occupy Wall Street march, or hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.
For students interested in being featured on the wall, he suggests that they focus on displaying a unique, noteworthy characteristic about their destination. He also mentioned that there aren’t many pictures on the wall of locations around New England.
Finally, many BC students also recognize the restaurant for its famous Chili-eating contest. Anyone bold enough to take on the challenge is incentivized by the potential to win a year’s-worth of burritos from the restaurant.
Any entrants must be prepared to face fierce competitors. Two years ago, the winner ate a shocking total of 90 habanero peppers. Last year, the winner upped the ante by downing over 100 peppers.
El Pelón nurtures BC students with delicious food throughout their college experiences. It’s an experience that sticks with students years into the future.
Brian Nason Hippern, a longtime fan of the restaurant and an up-and-coming songwriter from the Boston area, decided to write a song dedicated to the restaurant: “Trip to El Pelón.” He perfectly captures the meaning of the restaurant in his ode to the Taqueria: “When I’m feeling so down, there’s one thing that can turn it all around. / … making a trip to El Pelón.”