Juan Martinez’s mechanic father explained the nuts and bolts of business ownership.
And helpings of the family’s ethnic favorites, prepared by Martinez’ mother, nurtured an entrepreneur who was well-fed, much-loved and at home in almost any kitchen.
That was the foundation for the dynamic Martinez, a Dominican Republic-born Lehigh Carbon Community College alumnus who first stepped foot in America when he was 16.
Today, Martinez owns Don Juan Mex Grill, a restaurant with five locations based in the Lehigh Valley that originated in Easton’s College Hill neighborhood in 2011.
Foundation for the Future
It was clear that business ownership was in Martinez’s blood – from his father’s garage to his grandparents’ grocery store, he knew he would pursue a similar path before he was even a teenager.
“Since the time I was 11, I knew I wanted to own a business and I wanted to own property,” Martinez said. “And starting at age 10, I worked in restaurants. I cooked. I cleaned. I worked counters. I was able to do all of these things because the Dominican Republic has such a big hospitality industry.”
But ask Martinez about the foundation that ultimately helped him marry his entrepreneurial spirit with his flair for Latin flavors, and he readily credits LCCC.
Martinez graduated in 2004 with an associate degree in business administration, but he experienced a significant learning curve with both the English language and American culture.
“When I started at LCCC, I had only been in the states for two years. I was doing a lot of ESL (English as a Second Language) work at first because my English wasn’t very strong,” Martinez said. “Math and finance were somewhat easy because they’re universal, but when it came to writing one paragraph let alone a whole paper, I couldn’t have done it without LCCC. The college truly helped me build a foundation for my professional development and a successful career.”
Martinez Meets Mickey, Thanks to Walt
Martinez remembers professor Walt Sweedo, a former LCCC business instructor and retiree who continues to coordinate the college’s Disney Co-op Program. Sweedo encouraged Martinez to apply to the program, and Martinez is among the 400-plus students who have benefitted to date from this 30-year-old program.
“Walt Sweedo was a phenomenal professor. He pulled me aside to tell me about the Disney Co-op Program, and I’m so glad he did. It was life-changing,” Martinez said. “The program introduced me to so many different cultures and students from all over the world. It helped me connect with a network of very successful people – people I remain connected with today.”
The Disney Co-op Program is a large part of why Martinez was later given the opportunity to take part in a Bank of America entrepreneurial start-up initiative.
“My Disney experience was all the recruiter wanted to talk about,” Martinez said. “Because at the time, Bank of America was sending their leadership through the Disney executive program.”
Martinez was exposed to the world of de novo banking, or a newly formed bank that is not acquired through purchase. Martinez has transferred this knowledge into much of what he does with Don Juan Mex Grill today.
“I learned how to put together a team, set and hit goals within a year, and basically take something from nothing and make it a reality. That’s the same process I’m repeating today,” he said.
Flexibility to Learn and Earn
While at LCCC, Martinez worked full time and pursued his studies part time. He appreciated the flexibility that LCCC provided – earning his degree his way, and within a timeframe that struck the work-study balance that he needed. He also participated in athletics as part of his LCCC experience, playing baseball for the Cougars.
After graduating from LCCC in 2004, he went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in business from the Muhlenberg College Wescoe School of Continuing Education and his MBA from DeSales University. He also studied at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Stanford, Calif.
While Martinez was still working in banking, he lived for a time in Chicago’s affluent Lincoln Park, an area teeming with entertainment, dining and nightlife. But Martinez learned that Lincoln Park had experienced a significant urban renewal over the previous two decades. The real estate investor in him couldn’t help but see the same potential in Easton.
“I had a gut feeling that Easton would be like Lincoln Park and I invested in commercial property there,” Martinez said.
That investment became his first restaurant, the State Cafe and Grill. Eight months later, Martinez opened the first Don Juan Mex Grill, also in Easton. But it would be another six years before Martinez and his wife, Melanie, opened the restaurant’s second location. He admits that at times they felt as if they were going backward, and shares that sheer passion alone is not enough to build a successful business. The knowledge to support your passion – in finance, marketing, accounting and leadership – are key to continually moving forward, adapting and improving.
When it comes to growing a business, Martinez said, “Listen to the customers. Market demand will always steer you in the direction you should go, as long as you are committed.”
Today, Martinez continues to feed his desire to both learn and lead through the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. He joined the association in 2010 and has served as its president the past two years.
“When I started the first Don Juan restaurant, I wanted to get involved in the industry and immerse myself,” Martinez said. “I connected with people who could relate to my pains and my successes. These were people who’ve been in the business for years.”
Bringing it all Together and Giving Back
Martinez came to America with his family seeking better opportunities – fertile grounds for a dream to take root and grow. And his dream has certainly flourished, all while he has kept family and community in clear view.
“My father sacrificed everything to give us a better life in America. He worked until he was 71 as a mechanic six days a week. He was a provider – food on the table, clean clothes – but he always stressed the importance of education,” Martinez said. “He helped me build a strong mental toughness. He taught me to keep moving forward, and to be somebody.”
Martinez can’t help but think of his father when he looks across the team he’s developed for Don Juan.
“The most rewarding thing is being able to make a difference for others. I see that with our employees. We’re impacting their families in a positive way. They’re putting food on their tables. That’s very important to me.” Martinez said.
When Martinez isn’t rolling up his sleeves in the kitchen, developing his staff or networking with industry professionals, he’s pausing to give back to the community that has supported him.
Together with Melanie, Martinez helps feed the less fortunate and supports back-to-school initiatives for local children. Don Juan awards annual scholarships to deserving students destined for amazing futures, students who remind him of his 16-year-old self, who would eventually succeed thanks, in part, to LCCC.