Ellis Winstanley and his wife are real life restaurant rescuers. They’ve built up a reputation in Texas for saving legacy eateries that fell on hard times for one reason or another. “A lot of times, things have just lost their way a little bit and there’s no massive change,” Winstanley says. “Just a thousand incremental improvements and you’re just constantly making it better and better and better and it takes off.”
Sometimes that means changing the organization of the physical space; other times, it’s making small adjustments to the recipe’s ingredients and not over-prepping, cutting down on waste. In the case of El Arroyo, it was about honing the voice of the brand through a physical sign outside the restaurant.
The Winstanleys bought the Austin, Texas restaurant El Arroyo in 2012 (one of four restaurants they currently own) and didn’t have to change much about the food at the beloved spot, which opened in 1975. Early efforts were focused on connecting with people through funny, sometimes uplifting (often taco- or margarita-related) signs outside the restaurant that read things like “Yes, I know guac is extra but so am I,” and “It’s OK if U fall apart sometimes / tacos fall apart & we still love them.”
“The sign was always there at El Arroyo,” Winstanley says. “When we bought it, the sign didn’t have much consistency in its messaging. It was funny normally, but sometimes it was funny gross, sometimes it was funny mean, and sometimes it was funny soft, and it was just kind of all over the place. We gave it more of a voice and it was all about lifting people up, making them feel better, and so it gradually gained social media followers, and then in COVID was in a really good place to contribute.”
Photos of the signs soon started going viral and now El Arroyo is known across the internet. I sat down with Ellis Winstanley to chat about how he used signs to raise money for restaurants, change Texas liquor laws, and connect people from around the world.
The Takeout: Over the pandemic we saw a lot of restaurants closing and losing their way. How did you work to save restaurants in your community then?
Ellis Winstanley: El Arroyo held the first livestream fundraiser, the first livestream concert from the El Arroyo sign. Someone on our team had a relationship with Robert Earl Keen and organized that, and then organized with the Texas Restaurant Association and the governor’s office, which, politics or not, this was about helping people. The Texas Restaurant Association put something together called the Texas Restaurant Relief Fund, the TRRF, and so it was the early days, all the big companies were holding onto their cash, no one really knew what was going to happen, but this was really about helping independent restaurants. We raised $27,000, so not a huge amount of money relative to some of the other efforts, but it was the very early effort.
We also through the pandemic, we didn’t lay anybody off at any of our stores, so we focused all our energy on El Arroyo. We said, “If we’re going to have to be battling this, we’re going to have one tip of the spear and that’s where we’re going to do it.” So all our employees from the other restaurants came to work at El Arroyo, all that wanted to. We actually hired anybody in the restaurant industry who wanted to work. We had scooter companies bringing 40 scooters that were pre-charged and various packaged food companies coming and supplying products.
In the early stages of the pandemic, we put up a sign that said, “Now would be a good time to legalize margarita delivery,” so we used the sign to put that message out there, and then we realized we could be a delivery company. We basically found a way in the law to become a delivery company. We worked with the governor’s office and the restaurant association to get it passed as law so that all restaurants could do it. We basically put on the sign “Now would be a good time to legalize margarita delivery” and a few days later we said “Holy shit, not even kidding, margarita delivery” with our phone number and our phones crashed immediately.
TO: I have to admit that when I first started seeing the sign all over social media with so many messages, I assumed it was a photoshopped meme because of how many different versions I saw.
EW: It’s super interesting to see people’s reactions when they find out it’s real. A lot of people come by any given day, people will drive by, stop, and get out and put their arm around it, take a picture of it like an old friend.
TO: How did the signs first start getting attention online?
You get a lot of messages from people who are like, “just so you know, I was going through a terrible time in my life and this really helped me.” That’s kind of cool.
TO: Is there a sign that sticks out to you from the beginning that was part of a big pop online?
EW: There’s a lot of them. They do brand partnerships a lot, we did a brand partnership with Netflix that was for Queer Eye when it relaunched, and that got a lot of traction. But then also one of my favorite ones was “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do, it’s my ankle.”
TO: That’s one that a lot of my friends sent me actually because I have very bad ankles.
EW: For sure—when you connect with it, you connect with it. There’s lots like that. Obviously, there are some that are more serious, like the one about Uvalde. There was one we did on Ukraine that said, “So it turns out one comedian’s courage can rally an entire planet.” It’s interesting because most of them are funny, but there are some that are like “I don’t know how many tacos it takes to be happy, but so far it’s not 23.” From different angles, different people connect.
There’s a whole group of people who run it, but a lot of them are user submitted now. So we started about four years ago encouraging people following the page to send in signs and now we get really good ones—two, three days a week it’s user-submitted stuff.
TO: How are you seeing that popularity online translate to the restaurant itself as far as number of customers and financial support?
EW: There are lots of people who come into the restaurant because they know the sign. It’s a driver of traffic, for sure. Originally we wanted to publish a book of the signs, and publishers were like, “this is too niche of a product, nobody’s going to buy this.” So we did it ourselves. We ended up selling out twice that first Christmas. Once we finally got all the books in to fill those orders, we shipped them all, then my wife put the remainder in her car and drove around San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas making deals with retailers however she could. And it took off, so they launched more products and now it’s hundreds of skews of products that are sold in retailers in 48 states and Canada, shipped all over the world. It’s amazing just how that connection can be developed, and it all just started with a brand voice that connected with people.
TO: Do you think there’s a difference in the fact that you are creating this physical sign before it goes online as opposed to just shooting off clever tweets every day?
EW: I guess I don’t know how to know whether there is or isn’t. I think with anything, brand consistency matters, so we look at the sign itself as obviously it’s got personality and funk to it, it’s different, it’s a consistent delivery medium, but the voice is what people are really connecting to. I think it’s easy to be like, “oh, it’s this sign, it just works,” but it’s really the voice.
TO: From the experience that you’ve had, what can you say about how restaurants act as gathering places for communities?
EW: What’s really fascinating about restaurants is that they are the first place people go in their community for support. It’s the first place people ask to sponsor their little league shirts or give them a raffle card for whatever organization it is they’re trying to raise money for. And they’re also normally the first people to step up when there’s a problem.
So whether it’s like COVID and restaurants pivoting to selling groceries, or even the freezes that happened in Texas—I know of at least three restaurant workers who drove to cook every bit of food in their cooler because hospitals couldn’t get food delivered and there were all these patients stuck there—it’s those kinds of decisions that restaurants make every single day. Especially in times of catastrophe, it’s always the first to step up and the first place to go, and I think that came into hyper focus during COVID. It’s easy to take for granted what you have in restaurants. They’re the glue of the community.