George Perez sits down at a table inside the recently opened Vermillion restaurant in Harlingen. He takes a taste of the ceviche that was just placed in front of him. The ceviche is as fresh as could be, the colors from the diced tomatoes, jalapenos and onion radiate from the plate, emphasizing the freshness. The chips that accompany them carry with them the warm smell of the oven.
“We’re not Vermillion yet,” Perez says as other orders are placed before the guests including nachos, onion rings and fried shrimp tacos with charro beans. “We’re getting there. We are going to get there – I have no doubt.” If they’re not there yet, they’re close – the taste is unequaled, fresh with distinct flavors. The temperature of the food is perfect and the display itself is mouth-watering.
For many residents of the Lower Valley, the Vermillion name carries a longstanding tradition. A comfortable atmosphere, top-notch service and exquisite tastes have made the original Brownsville location a favorite. The fact that it has been open since 1934 – 83 years – is a testament itself to how it’s a part of the Brownsville community.
“I worked 38 of those years there,” said Perez, who became the owner a little more than 18 months ago, purchasing it from Dan Davidson, who had purchased it from his dad. “It’s no longer in the family,” Perez said. “But Mr. Davidson is a mentor and like a dad to me, so it still is in some sense.” In fact, Perez went to Davidson to ask his advice about opening the Harlingen location – and to get his blessing. “If he would’ve said no,” Perez said, as his eyes darted to where customers sat throughout the restaurant, making sure they were taken care of. “We wouldn’t be here today.”
Perez, 51, started working at the Vermillion when he was 13. What was supposed to be just a part-time job during his middle school years turned out to be so much more. “I started as a dish washer and the rest is history 38 years later. I love it – it’s in my blood. There isn’t one job I’ve never done. You have to know every aspect if you’re going to be good and there’s not one thing I don’t know – even when it comes to fixing and repairing and remodeling.”
Owning an existing successful restaurant like the one in Brownsville and opening a new franchise in a city with a completely different culture is tough enough. Opening in a location where business after business has shut down may sound absolutely insane but, despite being open since just April 4, the clients are starting to trickle in a little more every week. Perez, however, doesn’t concern himself too much with the location and other things he can’t control – he’s all about making sure the things within his control are done to perfection.
“Like any restaurant that first opens, we’re not up to par – and certainly not by Vermillion standards. We are doing better, but not Vermillion better,” Perez said. “Over there, half of the staff have been there for 30 years are more. Over here, everything is new – different staff, different city, different work ethics – and we don’t know anybody. But we’re going to get there.”
If desire and pure will were enough to make everything successful, the Vermillion’s Harlingen location would already be at 100 percent with Perez pushing all the buttons. However, there are many more factors, including the fact that Harlingen has many cookie-cutter type Mexican restaurants, where the food comes plentiful and comes cheap. That alone keeps the competition tough.
But on this weeknight, nearly every person who meanders through the entrances are coming in dressed from work, the clientele that Perez is hoping to attract. Most head over to the bar section before ordering but some sit around a table and start with some appetizers – onion rings and nachos are both extremely popular. Perez looks over at them, always the perfectionist when it comes to his restaurants. He places a lot of pressure on himself, it’s what drives him.
“The city has been good to us,” Perez said. “Even though we have disappointed some people with our service or with our food because they know the Vermillion and what it means, I just ask them to give us another opportunity. Every day we talk about what we can do – it’s a nice place, but it’s not Vermillion warm yet. We will get there.”
Perez prides himself with the results of his 38 years of hard work – and rightly so. Of course if he had to do it all over again, there would be a little different path when it comes to education. “If I had a choice to do it again, I would get an education and finish college. Sure, I’ve done well but it has taken many, many, many years. I’m happy but is has been a lot of hard work; maybe with an education it would’ve taken half the time.”
But from a hands on experience, the knowledge Perez has gained as a worker in every area of the restaurant business for 38 years is indispensable. Plus he still has a hand on the earlobe of Davidson, who he calls “the face and voice of the Vermillion – even though I tell him what to say now,” he jokes. He’ll tug on that earlobe quite often to ask advice and is quick to admit that he still learns from his friend and previous owner.
“He was happy with just the restaurant in Brownsville – if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it,” Perez said. “So when I went to him to get the blessings to open in Harlingen, I was 50-50 on what he would say. He knows – he’s seen – that I’m not afraid of hard work. He told me that and he said do it – so I did it because of that.”
The Vermillion is located at 1601 W. Harrison Ave. in Harlingen and 115 Paredes Line Road in Brownsville.
This story by Henry Miller appears in the June 2017 edition of Valley Business Report.