El Rodeo, other businesses squeezed out of Brightleaf locations

Downtown Durham mainstay El Rodeo, one of the city's first Mexican restaurants is closing its doors in Brightleaf Square on March 28 after more than three decades of business.

Video Transcript

ANDRES ONATE: So it's a very small location which is where we would make miracles here.

ELAINA ATHENS: Andres Onate has spent most of March serving beloved customers authentic Mexican fare.

ANDRES ONATE: Our shredded chicken.

ELAINA ATHENS: While moving out furniture and putting items in storage. He's been trying to find new jobs for loyal employees, some of whom like this dishwasher have worked for El Rodeo 15 years. Onate has dedicated most of his life to the restaurant.

ANDRES ONATE: This is all I've known. I mean, I started here when I was 13.

ELAINA ATHENS: His father originally opened the small business. Onate says the pandemic of course created a hardship, but the biggest blow came from a landlord squeezing for more money, and he pleaded for relief.

ANDRES ONATE: I told him we couldn't pay anymore, because we're negative every single month. And whatever is negative is coming out of the owner's pockets. So if they could just help us out.

ELAINA ATHENS: Another business in Brightleaf Square also unable to cushion a hike. Mount Fuji Asian Bistro closing up and telling customers online there were significant lease increases. We felt we had no alternative. Brightleaf was purchased not so long ago by Asana Partners. I've been reaching out to the investment company since early this month, emailing and calling. Nobody has gotten back to me for comment on the increases.

ANDRES ONATE: I don't know how they're going to get there with everybody leaving. I wish them good luck. That's all I can say. But they're taking a gamble. They're taking a gamble, because we have been here for a long time.

ELAINA ATHENS: El Rodeo does have three other Triangle locations, and those are staying open.

ANDRES ONATE: And then everything else that's grilled, we make it fresh.

ELAINA ATHENS: I'm being told nearly every employee has been reassigned to a new job elsewhere. Onate is sentimental about closing the Brightleaf location. He's focusing on finding another spot in downtown Durham to reopen, keeping the generational business and his legacy alive.

ANDRES ONATE: And I think we're one of the first Mexican restaurants in Durham. So we're proud of that.

ELAINA ATHENS: In Durham, Elaina Athens, ABC11 Eyewitness News.