‘We’re still here’: Casa Zamora will soon celebrate 55 years of being in business

Published 2:45 pm Wednesday, March 20, 2024

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By Ayanna Eckblad

What makes a business successful in a community? Restaurant owners Jake and Lupe Zamora say that it comes down to determination, hard work and loyal customers.

The married couple has spent the last 54 years pouring love, dedication and an immense amount of work into their restaurant, Casa Zamora.

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Their venture began as a business owned by four Zamora brothers and their wives.

“We always wanted to do something to carry on the legacy of Mexican food and Mexican culture,” Jake said.

The brothers originally opened the business on Broadway in a building that had previously been a classic cookery. The restaurant moved to Main Street about 14 years after opening.

“When we first started, we were really quite busy because we were the first Mexican restaurant in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa,” Jake said.

When it opened in 1969, there were no suppliers in the Albert Lea area that had corn tortillas. Jake often had to go to several different stores in Rochester to see if they had any in stock to get Casa Zamora through the weekend.

After the initial opening, business slowed down and the other three brothers moved on to do other jobs, leaving the ownership to Jake and Lupe.

Jake is originally from Texas, and Lupe is from Iowa. As a teenager, Jake and his father worked in farming. In the summer, they worked near Hollandale, traveling back to the southern states to do farm work in the winter. As an adult, Jake got into building construction in Rochester, a job he continued to do even after Casa Zamora opened.

Jake said he remembers closing the restaurant after the bar crowd left at 3 a.m., getting home when the sun was rising and then getting ready to go to his construction job.

Jake studied and has experience in welding and plumbing. He taught the welding profession for three years. Along with working at the restaurant and raising his family, his hands were full.

“I was working three jobs for seven years,” he said.

His knowledge of construction, plumbing and welding came in quite handy, not just for his livelihood but also for doing repairs when things in the restaurant broke down. Although Jake and Lupe had to bring in outside help for some of the implements, he was able to fix a lot of things himself. Because of this, a lot of the equipment has been in Casa Zamora for 40 years.

These days, Jake works solely in the restaurant. He comes into work at 8 a.m., unless something breaks; then it’s 5 or earlier.

In 2024, Casa Zamora is a benchmark in the community.

“We’ve built up a reputation that nobody else has got,” Jake said.

Lupe said the quality of the food they make is a major contributor to the restaurant’s lasting success.

“Everything is made from scratch,” she said. “I think what helped us too was that all our meals are served on hot plates. They go in the oven, they come out hot, nothing’s cold except for … salad and lettuce.”

The restaurant buys ingredients like beans, rice and certain spices in bulk so that they can make things fresh in the morning. Jake said the ground beef they make takes two hours to prepare.

The couple extend a huge thanks to their faithful customers, some of which have been coming to Casa Zamora for the 54 years it has been open.

“We have a lot of loyal customers that keep coming back. Their kids and grandkids are coming in now. A lot of the parents are gone,” Jake said. “There was one guy that came in last week and he said, ‘Thanks for the good cooking … You don’t know this, but I used to come in when you [were on Broadway]. I was a junior in high school.’”

The restaurant has been open for so long that the couple said many people have passed away, including friends and family. They have also seen industries in the area come and go.

“Lately life has gotten really really tough for everybody,” Jake said. “Nobody can find enough employees and help.”

Besides Jake and Lupe, Casa Zamora has three waitresses on staff, and they also get help from their grown daughter and son.

“My son has taken over a lot of my maintenance stuff,” Jake said.

Casa Zamora does celebrations for Cinco de Mayo and has started doing celebrations for Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day, as well. Jake said when he was younger, Sept. 16 was celebrated more than Cinco de Mayo. Albert Lea had a parade that went down Broadway followed by a dance at the local armory.

For those interested in opening a business in Albert Lea, Jake and Lupe advise people to do their research and exercise a lot of determination. They also said that prospective business people need to be willing to be flexible.

“Adapt. We do what we have to do here,” Jake said. “And we’re still here.” He and Lupe look forward to running Casa Zamora for as long as they are able to.
Casa Zamora is at 2006 E Main St. The restaurant’s phone number is 507-373-6475.