Do You Know Mandy (Merino) Johnson

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Photos by Libby Rogers

How long have you been in Huntsville?

We moved to Huntsville from Houston in 1989, 30 years ago, to live with my grandparents—my father’s parents. My dad didn’t have a job, and he decided he was going to open a taco stand. We started with only fajita burritos and my grandmother’s homemade tamales. We were doing so well, my grandfather said, “Let’s open up a restaurant.” We started with 9 tables and have since added on to both the kitchen and the dining area.

So, you helped your dad from the beginning?

Yes, since day one. I was 15. The bus would drop me from school, and I would go to work. And I have worked here ever since.

What year was it your dad, Ton Merino, passed away?

It was 2002. It hit me in November that I did it 13 years with him, and I have now done it 17 years without him. It was hard doing with it him—harder doing it without him—but I want to continue doing it as long as I can.

Was it always in your plan to do this?

We had always planned to do this long-term. He did other stuff before. He was a private investigator, a bail bondsman, he had run another restaurant, he even opened a driving range at one point here. He wanted me to go pick up golf balls during my break here, and I told him this was enough, he was on his own over there <laughing>.

What is your first memory of working at the restaurant?

The day he opened, I had surgery. Mom was taking me home, and I begged her to stop and let me see Daddy on his first day. As soon as we pulled up, he hit the neon “Open” sign and said, “Firstemployee’s here; let’s roll.” And we did. I stayed all day. I loved working with my dad. We would come in at the end of the night, get our showers, then meet back at the kitchen table to eat dinner together. Mom would say, “Don’t you two get tired of each other?”I said, “Nope. I like him.” We were like two peas in a pod. It was really fun working with him.

Where does your strong work ethic come from?

We work in this family. The day after my dad died, my grandfather called from the restaurant and said, “Where are you? It’s time to open the restaurant. You’re alive. You come to work!” My grandparents were Joe and Feliz Merino. I remember as a kid, during school break in the summer, my grandmother would say, “You still have to get up and be productive.” Whether it was helping make tamales or helping her sew, you were doing something. And her name meant“happy,” so you might as well enjoy what you were doing!

Is the restaurant a “full family” venture?

My mom helped a lot during the time after my dad died. I have two brothers and a sister, but this isn’t their passion like it is mine.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I don’t know. <laughs> People are nosy in my business; they know a lot of stuff. Probably that I’m just now getting married, this late in life. Maybe that, even at night, my thoughts and dreams are aboutFiesta. One time about five years ago, late at night, I realized, “Oh my gosh! That guy today (Dustin LeNorman) wanted a chicken burrito, and I took him beef!” When I think I’m not thinking about anything, I’m still thinking about Fiesta—always.

What frustrates you?

Rude people. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Not everyone is having a great day. I get that. But, by the time you leave, I want you to at least try to smile. People will be like, “My car broke down.”My response is, “You have a car.” Always be positive. People should be more thankful and more positive. Take all the steps you can…because you can.

What do you do to relax?

<long pause> I do try to make time for my friends, as much as I can. Girl time is golden. Sometimes I will get a text, then say“see you at the Park and Ride.”Then go sit there for 20 minutes and just “girl chat.” I am fortunate to have really good friends. You seem to be in constant motion.

Are you able to sit still long enough to watch a movie?

Oh, no! I haven’t seen a movie in a long time. I wish. I do go get a massage once a month or so.

What would be your advice for young people today?

<laughs> Stop being lazy, and get off your phone! There’s SO MUCH out there that’s not on there. You’re missing it. Go to a concert rather than watching the video on your phone. Live in the moment.

What is something you want to be remembered for?

I really strive to be a good friend to those closest to me. I think everyone should be a good friend. But, if folks just think, “That Fiesta girl,” I’m fine with that, too!

I was once asked if I was a ‘hugger.’ I didn’t think so at the time but, over the years, I’ve come to think I am. What it really is, I think, is…when I see someone hurting or feeling like they have a weight on them, I just want to hug them and “take it from them.” I want people to feel loved and like it’s going to be ok.

What surprises you?

A funny thing is when people come in who haven’t been here in years, and they walk in and say, “Oh, wow! You’re still here?” Where else would I be? You’ve gotta be somewhere, so why not be where you want to be? This is where I want to be. This is where my dad put me, and this is where I’m staying.

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