More Feeling Than Food: Bandido's Mexican Cafe

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Tony Sustaita and Bandido’s Mexican Café

By Tom Griffen 

When Tony Sustaita opened Bandido’s Mexican Café in 1995, he wanted a belly-busting challenge on the menu. He created El Gigante, a 5-pound, Sunday newspaper-sized burrito.

“I printed 100 shirts to give to folks who could finish it,” Tony said. “I figured they’d last me forever.”

Twenty-two years later, Tony has passed out more than 11,000 shirts. And with a 25% success rate, that equates to more than 40,000 El Gigante attempts.

“It’s a rite of passage,” Tony said.

Tony believes a restaurant’s success is more about feeling than anything else. His story explains why.

Tony’s mom Nan was a school bus driver in Atlanta. Between shifts, Nan would stop at Bob’s Barbeque, a biscuit and coffee shack owned by a woman named Barbara. Nan often helped Barbara take care of customers.

One day the door was locked at Bob’s. Barbara had passed away and the restaurant was closed for good.

Soon after, Nan was contacted by an attorney asking if she was, in fact, the “Nan” who frequented Bob’s Barbeque. Barbara had willed the restaurant to Nan.

“Mom was the only person who ever stepped up and helped,” Tony said.

So she made a couple changes and reopened it as Nan’s Mexican Restaurant. After a local paper did an article on her place, customers flooded in.

“Within two years we were no longer at poverty level,” said Tony. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Tony worked in the restaurant until taking a teaching position after college. But the classroom wasn’t for him.

“I was bored senseless,” Tony said. “All I did was look forward to weekends at the restaurant.”

Tony quit teaching and opened a burger and wing joint. He married his wife, Maria, and started a family. He eventually sold the business but opened another. When outside renovations made foot traffic impossible, he needed a viable plan B.

So he visited an old college buddy in Raleigh who showed him around the Triangle.

“On the day we visited Chapel Hill, it snowed. I knew we were going to move here,” he said.  

Tony walked up and down Franklin Street introducing himself to business owners. He told everyone his plan for a restaurant and asked for help finding a location.

He learned of a shabby space next door to (what used to be) The Rathskeller. It needed a lot of work, but Tony could see the potential.

“I called the landlord and asked him to hold it. I assured him I’d get the money,” Tony said.

Tony quickly moved to Chapel Hill to begin the build out. He slept where he worked.

First thing he did was get a library card and read books on building tables and hanging sheet rock. He scoured yard sales for restaurant decorations.

“There weren’t even restrooms in here,” he said. “I had to use the ones at nearby businesses.”

Reed Raynor, the owner of Rathskeller, often brought him food made in error.

“He’d give me his ‘mistake’ pizza, ‘mistake’ pitchers of beer, ‘mistake’ steaks,” Tony said. “I’m pretty sure he was feeding me!”

During the upfit, Tony ran out of money. So Nan took a second mortgage while Maria’s family in Mexico pooled together some cash. When he ran out again, the well was dry.

“We were this close to opening but I didn’t have money for food or alcohol,” Tony said. “We’d done all this work for nothing.” 

He called his friend in Raleigh and gave him the sob story.

“It was the lowest I’ve ever been,” Tony said. “But het old me all would be fine.”

That night, while he was changing clothes, a check for $20,000 fell out of his shirt pocket. His buddy had slipped it in when he wasn’t paying attention. It was enough to officially open up Bandido’s.

Tony paid everyone back within a year.

Tony attributes his success to hard work, consistency, and a dedicated team. His head cook, for example, has been at Bandido’s for 19 years. His lead waitress has been with him for 20.

“This is all I know to do,” Tony said. “So I do whatever it takes to make it work. Plus, I still love it.”

The top selling item on the menu is the margarita rice bowl, but Tony’s favorite is nachos.

“It’s God’s perfect food,” he said. “You can do anything with it.”

As passionate as he is, Tony’s learned over the years not to take things too personally.

“Once in a while on a crazy busy Friday, someone will tell me that our food’s not that good,” he said. “I look around at the growing crowd and shrug it off—because obviously there’s plenty of people who think it is worth waiting for.”

More than anything else, Tony is dedicated to making customers feel good. A family value that’s become Bandido’s guiding philosophy.