Discussion with a Great Entrepreneur and Family Man in Las Cruces, NM
Originally appearing in the Mesilla Valley Business Journal, April 2012.
“I feel like I own this,” says John Gutierrez, President and sole shareholder of My Brother’s Place, a local establishment known for its green enchiladas, margaritas, and downstairs billiards hall. “But actually … my employees own this place. I’m working for them and with them.”
Everyone at My Brother’s Place on 334 S. Main is family. That makes sense. The business goes back three generations within the family, and it began with helping others. John Gutierrez’s grandfather Jesús Gutierrez arrived from Guadalajara, Mexico around the time of New Mexico’s entry into statehood in 1912. He opened a pharmacy simply called Valley Drug on the corner of Organ and Main Street across from Saint Geneviéve Catholic Church.
Back in those days, Jesús Gutierrez didn’t need formal schooling to work in pharmaceuticals or gain his pharmaceutical license. Experience and good works were enough to pass the board test for licensing without formal schooling. Ralph – Jesús’ son – came from a very different generation. He attended college at Louisiana State University for chemistry, graduating in 1949, and then graduated with honors from the University of New Mexico to obtain his pharmaceutical license. He came back to Las Cruces in 1951 to go into business with his father and start a family.
John Gutierrez is one of five boys and two girls. All of Ralph’s children worked at Valley Drug nearly as soon as they wore pants and tie their own shoestrings, learning a business and work ethic by sweeping floors and servicing customers. “We grew up in a business-oriented background,” John says, crediting both his father and grandfather for his sense of entrepreneurship. They didn’t earn minimum wage. “If we wanted a new pair of shoes or a pair of Levis, we had to work for it.”
An ethic of family and hard work was bred and kneaded into John Gutierrez and kneaded into him and his siblings. Everyone prospered, and the community benefited. Meanwhile, Grandpa Gutierrez relocated to a new location in 1965 called City Drug, where My Brother’s Place stands today.
John Gutierrez followed his own path. He went to college and graduated in 1972 with a major in physical education and a minor in history. College graduates this month might be amazed to learn that he landed a job fresh out of college with Las Cruces Public Schools. Still, entrepreneurship was in his blood. “My father and my brother Steve decided we wanted to remodel this building,” John says, making clear that he had no formal plan. “We wanted to open some kind of restaurant.”
Over cocktails, John and Steve Gutierrez decided on the name, My Brother’s Place. While the pharmacy remained open, brothers John and Steve Gutierrez opened a Mexican food restaurant on the second level and a steak house on the bottom level. “It was very successful,” John says. “This was before chains were common, and we were lucky.”
Now John and Steve were young at the time, only in their early 20’s. They followed their passions as they leased space from their father, and the passion was to create a fun, college pleasing atmosphere for students of New Mexico State University. “We were twenty-two years old,” John Gutierrez says. “We wanted to be with the college kids.” 50-cent beers were served from mason jars. They made tables of wood spools donated by the electric company. And somehow, My Brother’s Place worked. Locals flocked to join in the food and fun, and brother’s John and Steve bought their father Ralph’s remaining space, dedicated to pharmacy, between 1981 and 1983.
“We didn’t have the finances, so we just winged it,” John says. Feeling squeezed out, and seeing his sons’ success, he moved his pharmacy closer to Memorial Medical Center. Something as simple as sharing limited parking space can make for an entirely new directive and the parking lot as My Brother’s Place was full. The establishment was on a roll.
And then tragedy struck.
When we think of entrepreneurs, we sometimes forget about the majority who never made – the great ideas and passion that just never quite made a go of it. And when we think of the successful ones, we often forget that they are human too. Filled with human frailties. Steve Jobs has been a recent reminder, but it happens locally too.
Steve Gutierrez succumbed after a long struggle to leukemia in 1992. “He was diagnosed in the early 90’s,” John says at a table, growing distant and misty-eyed at a table far off from the crowd in his restaurant. Bone marrow transplants seemed to have made him better. Life could have gone on. “Steve died in 1992. He went out of remission. It’s going to be 20 years this year. It’s still called My Brother’s Place.”
Today, My Brother’s Place is acknowledged across generations for its food and fun. Green chile enchiladas are the most requested item on the menu. Red chile comes from the Cervantes family of La Mesa, and the margaritas have been voted the best in town multiple times. In fact, there’s even a Margarita Monday that drives business with low prices and is a favorite among the crowd from college-aged to seniors. Aggie Gals, car clubs, and former Raytheon employees are among the various organizations that flock to My Brother’s Place for their monthly meetings. Downstairs, at the premier pool hall, the Mesilla Valley Players’ Association League competes weekly
Speaking of his brother and business partner Steve, John Gutierrez says. “What I know, I learned from him?” With that inspiration, and the help of his staff, an adopted family it seems, My Brother’s Place continues to be a hallmark of success in Las Cruces. A fortieth anniversary of the establishment comes in October of 2012.
“I don’t know what else to tell you about this place,” John Gutierrez says as we close our meeting. “It sure has been fun. Or else I wouldn’t be here.”This popular Mesilla Valley establishment is located at: