AUSTIN, Tx. — People come here for the legendary tacos, but they come back for the man who can only be described as the sign atop his restaurant: Juan in a Million.
Owning a restaurant wasn’t what Juan Meza and his wife had planned when they started their careers as teachers.
“I wasn’t even married yet, no kids, and I couldn’t make ends meet,” said Meza. “We would teach all day, and I was washing dishes and my wife was waitressing. I really got to enjoy the hustle and bustle.”
A few years in, they borrowed money to start their own restaurant, and 41 years later, their hard work has paid off. Every day, Juan has been right inside the front door to welcome nearly every customer personally.
“He did win ‘best handshake of Austin,’” said Meza’s daughter, Christina Kim, who also works in the restaurant.
Meza’s son works there as well. He said he feels lucky both his kids want to be involved.
“I was born and raised here in the restaurant,” said Kim. “My parents, when they couldn’t afford daycare, they actually had me here. They had the bassinet behind the cash register.”
Every hurdle, this family overcame together, but then the pandemic hit.
“We were forced to close our doors, which in our 41-year history has never happened,” said Kim.
They quickly pivoted to to-go only and were able to keep their employees on.
But at the beginning of this year, Meza almost lost his life.
“I ended up in the ICU for four days. Twice there was a code red,” said Meza of what he heard down the hall from his hospital bed. “People are actually dying, and it makes you think, makes you look at things differently. And when I left the hospital, came home, was really weak, you know, things we take for granted: brushing your teeth, shampooing your hair, can’t do it. It’s hard, but thank God we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“There was a point where I thought maybe he wasn’t going to make it,” said Kim.
Thankfully, Meza recovered and got back on his feet. His days in the hospital convinced him to keep his signature handshake alive in a new way: with an elbow or fist bump and a smile covered by a mask.
He’s decided to open his doors with social distancing and masks.
“I’m glad we’re doing that,” said Meza. “The city of Austin is doing it, and people should wear a mask.”
Austin is one of few Texas cities with COVID-19 restrictions, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has removed statewide mask mandates and allowed businesses to operate at 100 percent capacity.
“The governor’s going to do what the governor would like to do,” said Kim. “We love him. He’s a customer as well of ours. We also understand that he’s got to make some of these choices.”
And while not all of the family’s customers agree with the restrictions, they’ll follow the rules for some good food from a family fighting yet again to survive.
“We all go through this together, so hopefully, we’re going to come out of this stronger,” said Meza.