As customers salivate over homemade queso and steak-stuffed flour burritos, Family Fresh Mex owner Jesus Ramirez watches with a smile.
But the service isn’t over yet, as Ramirez personally visits each customer and hands out mints.
Family Fresh Mex is one of many ethnic restaurants recently opened in the Midlands — and meIt all started in 2013 with a modest food truck in Soda City, a growing trend in the restaurant industry.
Ramirez and his wife owned a restaurant in Mexico. After owning a food truck in the United States for eight years, the couple was approached with an offer to open a physical location in Columbia, just off Main Street.
The restaurant is currently located on Gervais Street, across from the SC State House and in the same building as The Whig.
But, soon, Ramirez will be moving the family restaurant and expanding into the former Persona Pizza property next door.
“They say it’s going to be better here. It really is a new company. You can see a lot of construction,” Ramirez said, waving at construction workers just outside the restaurant. “They say it’s going to be better for us. Let’s see.”
With his family in mind, Ramirez said he was making an intentional effort to keep prices as low as possible, although he acknowledged that fluctuations in gasoline prices had affected much of the price of his restaurant.
Family Fresh Mex’s main competitive brand is the show of family the couple bring to their business.
“Every time we serve it to you, it’s something we can eat. We eat it because she likes it,” laughed Ramirez, pointing to his wife. “We tried to (convince) everyone to come together and feel like family.”
The effort was well received by the Columbia community. The restaurant’s popularity has spread through word of mouth, and many of the restaurant’s patrons are repeat customers.
“We come here at least once a week, if not more,” said one customer.
Matt Kennell, president and CEO of the Main Street District, said one of the main motivations for the Soda City market is for the food stalls to get enough traction to establish themselves permanently in the community.
“It’s just fun to watch,” Kennell said. “And we seem to be getting more and more, so that’s a really good thing.”
In addition to Family Fresh Mex, the Uptown on Main store and restaurants like Rambo’s Fat Cat Biscuits, The Strudel Shop, and City Market started as handheld vendors.
Kennell is excited about the multitude of ethnic restaurants opening in Colombia.
Taco Grande recently opened on Hampton Street. A Hibachi-style restaurant has opened in the 1600 block of Main Street, and the city has announced a Korean restaurant in the 1300 block of Main Street, according to Kennell.
“The University of South Carolina, all the medical facilities we have in one city, Fort Jackson attracts a very diverse clientele,” Kennell said. “These ethnic restaurants just add to that mix. It celebrates the diversity of Colombia.
Like others, Kennell loves the food and atmosphere at Family Fresh Mex, describing the restaurant as “anti-chain.”
“People were super nice. It’s very local and very fresh,” Kennel said. “You felt like family when you went there.”