Nino’s Mexican Grill owners have made themselves a better life

The owners of Nino’s Mexican Grill are ready to go big. But for now, they’re taking their expansion plans one step at a time. 

Joel and Claudia Navarro opened their popular Union Gap restaurant in 2013, and after six successful years, they started thinking about how to grow the business. 

Now that their children are older and can handle more of the day-to-day operations, the couple decided there’s no time like the present. They considered a number of options — in Yakima and beyond — but ultimately decided that keeping Nino’s in the Yakima Valley made the most sense, at least in the short term. 

The family is planning to open their second location in Westpark Shopping Center this spring, and they are currently remodeling the former Black Bear Frozen Yogurt space. 

“Our family is on a mission now, and there’s so much we want to do to keep growing,” said Norma Barrera, 23, the couple’s oldest daughter. “Before we chose the space on 40th Avenue, we were thinking, ‘Seattle!’ But we convinced my parents to wait until we get this place up and running. Then we can think about downtown Seattle again.” 

Nino’s, at 1601 E. Washington Ave., has become a local favorite, specializing in fresh, authentic Mexican recipes from Michoacan, where Claudia Navarro grew up. 

Offering a variety of meats, fresh salsas, vegetables and tortillas — hand pressed and warmed up on the grill — have helped Nino’s create a flavor all its own. The response has been so positive that the family knew they had to expand the brand. 

“We’re confident in our food — it’s really good,” Barrera said. “Our prices are also good, so growth was kind of inevitable. We’re excited to expand here in Yakima, but we’re already thinking about the next one.” 

About four months before the family signed the lease on the Westpark Center location, they were intent on expanding west of the mountains. But after weighing the potential cost, and considering how well business was going in Yakima, Claudia Navarro announced, “I’m going to find us a spot.” 

They drove around Yakima for about two weeks, looking for the perfect location, and then it hit them: west Yakima would be perfect. 

“At the end of last year, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Barrera said. “But we really connected with the real estate agent (Chris Sentz of Almon Commercial Real Estate), and everything just came together. Plus, that’s one of the busiest intersections in town, so we think it’s going to be ideal. It was just meant to be.” 

The family is doing all of the remodeling work itself, but they haven’t yet set an opening date for the new restaurant. 

“Hopefully before the summer,” Barrera said. 

Joel Navarro is a general contractor and he is doing most of the work with his son, Alberto Barrera, 20, who is learning that side of the business. Having an in-house labor force will also help save money on the remodel of the 2,000-square-foot space next to Subway. 

The prep kitchen in the 1,200-square-foot Union Gap restaurant is fairly small, so the family is eager to get the new place up and running. 

“It gets pretty crowded in here when we’re busy,” said Norma Barrera, who works alongside her mom, her sister, Samantha Barrera, and her aunt, Magdalena Martinez, most days. (The Navarros also have a 6-year-old son, Franco.) “But the new prep area is ridiculously big. That’s going to make life much easier for us.” 

Taking A Chance 

With or without the new location, Nino’s Mexican Grill can already be labeled a success story. 

Six years ago, the Navarros — with three kids and one on the way — opened the restaurant in a less-developed part of town, hoping their family recipes could attract a local following. 

When Nino’s first opened, there was no JC Penney, Cabela’s Outpost or Famous Dave’s BBQ. There was a teriyaki restaurant next door (now Pho King Crab), but for the most part, there was little development going on at that time. But the couple was ready to take a chance, so they opened the restaurant to complement their construction business. 

Today, Nino’s Mexican Grill has become their present and future. 

“My parents are the reason we’re here,” Norma Barrera said. “They struggled a lot growing up and they didn’t want us to go through that. So they put everything they had into building up this business, and they have pushed us to help them make it a success. There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but we’ve always stuck together. We’re like a little ‘dream team.’” 

Joel Navarro grew up in the Valley, graduating from Wapato High School. Claudia Navarro was raised in Michoacan, Mexico, and she was “very poor,” Barrera said. Having lived most of their lives on the margins, the couple dedicated themselves to creating a better life for their children. 

“Sometimes you have to go through things in order to become stronger,” said Barrera, a graduate of Davis High School. “My mom literally came from nothing, but she always had a love for business. She said she was going to open a restaurant or a shoe store someday, and this is what she chose. Now, we get to enjoy the benefits of that hard work.” 

But don’t expect Barrera, her sister or her brothers to take it easy. They’ve seen firsthand the benefits of working hard, and they understand that is the only way to get ahead in life. 

“My parents have always pushed us, but I understand their motivation,” she said. “They don’t want us to struggle like they did, so they taught us to build each other up and create something together. We’re a team, and we depend on each other every day.” 

The family’s future plans may come to fruition sooner than later. Once they get the 40th Avenue restaurant up and running, they’re going to start scoping out locations on the west side again. 

It’s all about the big picture, Barrera said. 

“You have to spend money to make money, and we really believe in what we have to offer,” she said. “We want to show people that something like this can be done if you work hard at it. We’re making our own little army, and we’re excited to see how far we can go.”  

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