Photography by Brandi Stage Portraiture
The start of each day at El Agave is a “good morning” and represents a new beginning for Mercedes Carranza.
Before diners arrive at the Gulfport restaurant, where Carranza is managing partner, he ensures he has enough staff to serve them and carry out operations. He also checks that the kitchen is stocked and prepped for the day ahead.
Then, it’s showtime.
“Once we open the door, everyone’s job is to make sure that every customer is satisfied with their meal,” he says. “Along the way, we will find many challenges, but we work to overcome them and carry on with our mission to deliver good customer service and a delicious meal.”
LEARNING THE ROPES
There is no greater satisfaction for Carranza than seeing friends enjoy the fare at El Agave, which opened in 2013. As a child coming of age in southern Mexico, Carranza already was a dedicated restaurateur in the making.
“Most people do not know that I grew up the only boy with nine sisters,” he says. “According to my dad, I was not supposed to be in the kitchen — but I wound-up cooking for a living.”
Carranza left his home country for Los Angeles in the 1990s and arrived on the Coast in 1995. The same year, he embarked on his food service career — working as a server in a local restaurant. The owner later enlisted him to help him manage the business.
“I began learning all the operations of the restaurant business from cooking, food preparation, dishwashing, ordering of food products, food-handling safety, managing employees, and most of all providing the best dining experience to our customers,” he says.
The owner opened another location two years later, which he asked Carranza to run for him. In that role, Carranza listened to patrons and learned what they wanted in a dining experience. They asked him about Mexican cuisine and told him what they liked to eat, which gave him ideas for new dishes.
“The conversations with the customers helped me to better learn the needs of the community, and through the restaurant, I was able to help,” Carranza says. “Creating new dishes, serving my community and conversation with my customers sparked my passion for the restaurant business.”
Hurricane Katrina broke that momentum, and in the years after the storm, Carranza worked at a retail business in downtown Gulfport. People he encountered in the community would ask him when he was returning to the restaurant industry.
“At that moment, my mind would go back to those days of seeing the happy faces of families enjoying a meal together in the restaurant and the conversations that I had with them, with the community, and with people from all walks of life,” Carranza says. “I would also recall all the time that operating a restaurant business can take away from your family life, and it was difficult to answer the question.”
His friend and mentor, Henry Lee Bryant, asked him to consider opening a restaurant with him and “return to doing what he knew I loved and enjoyed.” Carranza secured the support of his family, which includes his wife, Sarah, and their three children, Edward, Elizabeth, and Eva, and soon started hunting for the right location, which he found on Highway 49.
“I wanted to be part of the rebuilding of downtown Gulfport, and I knew that people that worked and did business in downtown would become the first customer base for the restaurant,” he says. “It is not easy to open a business and be successful quickly, but I am grateful many people and businesses I knew from before came to support the restaurant.”
MEALS, MARGARITAS — AND MUCH MORE
El Agave’s name comes from the name of the plant from which tequila is made, and according to Carranza, it’s meant to entice customers to come inside for great Mexican cuisine and a refreshing margarita — which he calls “Mexican lemonade.”
“Some of the food on the menu is traditional Mexican food, such as enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas, but you will find a variety of the dishes that I have created with the flavor and taste from my hometown in Mexico,” he says, “such as green chile pork, creamy chicken, and diablo shrimp, which have quickly become the locals’ favorites.”
El Agave’s location makes it an accessible and convenient place for the local business community, first responders, military base personnel and hospital staff to grab a tasty, affordable lunch. The evening crowd includes more families, couples and friends celebrating special occasions and local school teams unwinding after a game.
“With our delicious food, good customer service and warm atmosphere, we keep our customers coming back,” Carranza says.
The fare always has been good at El Agave, says longtime friend and loyal patron Percy McClendon Sr., but the biggest draw — and greatest reason for its success — is Carranza himself. For that reason, he worked to persuade Carranza to come back to the business during his post-Katrina hiatus.
“First of all, the guy is real,” McClendon says. “He’s a people person. He’ll come out and have a seat with you while you’re eating.”
Many online El Agave reviewers mention Carranza specifically, including one guest who wrote, “(He) is always around to welcome you like a friend or relative.” Another reviewer raved about Carranza’s attentiveness and friendliness, adding, “We have watched him greet every table in the restaurant every time we are there.”
AN ‘INVITING SPIRIT’
McClendon credits his friend for the “good attitude” and “good energy” prevalent throughout the restaurant.
“It’s like a family of people working there, not just a place for people to go to work,” he says. “You can tell by the atmosphere when you walk in the door. Everyone’s got a smile on their face.” Those happy expressions are reflected on the restaurant’s memorabilia board, where El Agave collects photos of friends and patrons.
The shrimp fajita quesadillas may be enough to make Latoya Crain an El Agave fan, but the service elevates it to her favorite restaurant. Far from being a typical manager who doesn’t leave his office, she says, Carranza doesn’t mind donning an apron and taking on any role in the restaurant – including greeter.
“Mercedes comes around and speaks to everybody, and his staff does too,” she says. “They make you a part of their family when you’re there.” His “inviting spirit” extends to every guest, she adds, and he takes an interest in his regulars — asking about their families, their work and how they’re doing overall.
An admitted “workaholic,” Carranza says he strives to be humble and make a positive difference in people’s lives.
“Listening to my customers is valuable to me,” he says. “Being friendly, sociable and a servant comes from my heart.”
His giving nature extends outside of the restaurant, where he is an active member of St. John Catholic Church, part of the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce and a frequent volunteer. Long term, Carranza aims to continue growing his business and have an even bigger impact on the community.
The Coast is fortunate to have many restaurants with wonderful and unique foods and flavors, he says, but with El Agave, he wants to provide something extra.
“We strive to not only serve delicious food,” he says, “but to be ambassadors of our culture through food and hospitality.”