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El Jardin closes, but Garden Center Café continuing

Rick Monroe

Special to the Village News

Friends – as well as strangers – have often told Bill Porter that he owns the best two restaurants in town. Porter and his wife Vicki opened Garden Center Café and Grill 22 years ago and for the past 11 years operated El Jardin Mexican Restaurant.

Both are located on South Mission Road in Fallbrook. Only one is still open. El Jardin, established here for nearly 50 years and a local landmark, served its final meals Saturday, Sept. 24. Porter admits it was a difficult decision to sell the El Jardin property but said the needed clientele didn't return after COVID-19.

"Too many people got used to working remotely and staying home," Porter said. "We had some delivery business, but the service charge made our price point difficult, and it didn't get delivered hot like people want. People were staying home, and we had to do something."

The property at 1581 S. Mission Road was sold – but not the restaurant and the new owner from Orange County has talked about opening a Wienerschnitzel franchise, keeping it as a Mexican restaurant, or building a car wash.

"I really want to thank the people of Fallbrook for their support, especially during Covid," Porter said. "Selling three tacos, rice and beans, it's difficult to make a profit on a $21 meal. Inflation, taxes and food prices have made the cost of doing business difficult."

Porter recalled customers at both restaurants being so generous during COVID-19.

"People would hand me a $50 or $100 bill – one person $500," he recalled. "There is also one regular who bought $5,000 in gift certificates and only $2,000 or so have been redeemed. They just wanted to help, and it was so amazing for us. That's Fallbrook, people helping one another."

Porter said he is saddened for not being able to retain all the employees at El Jardin, a couple of them second generation workers.

"Many of them worked at both restaurants and we'll bring as many as we can to The Garden Center, which serves higher-end meals," he said.

Some of the workers have been at the restaurant 20 years and there has been very little turnover.

Ironically, the translation of El Jardin means The Garden. The Garden Center Café was the name of the business prior to the Porters buying it 22 years ago.

The Garden Center Café and Grill is known for its light and airy dining room and the patio area where alfresco dining is a memorable event. The café also offers dinner with savory delights including Certified Angus Beef prime rib and fresh seafood.

The Porters bought El Jardin from the Fedorchak family 11 years ago when the minimum wage was $7.50 per hour. That wage increases to $16 per hour on Jan. 1.

Porter started in the food business in 1970 when he was 21 and was a waiter at the Jolly Ox in Mission Valley. He earned $2 for serving lunch and $4 for serving dinner, but the tips were good, and he earned $300 to $400 a week. "It was a good life, and I was happy," he recalled.

He worked for Hungry Hunter for years before opening a restaurant in Arizona. It was at Hungry Hunger that he learned the lesson that the ambiance, service and menu were important, but the number one thing for customers was hot foot.

One of the things he learned from owning a restaurant here is that if there was a position opening for a young worker, to ask one of his good workers if he had a friend who might be interested.

Porter recalled another example of Fallbrook helping others, this time the military.

"A group of 5-6 military [personnel] came in for dinner and Vicki asked me if we should buy them dinner. Their waitress overheard and said, 'You can't. Two other tables said they wanted to do it.'"

El Jardin will be missed but having one restaurant to run will allow Bill and Vicki more time to work together. It's been a family business with son Clay still involved in management.

The Garden Center is located at 1625 S. Mission Road.

"I really wanted to thank the people who gave us money during the pandemic," Porter said. "Fallbrook is such a special community."


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