At age 6, Karl Salazar wasn’t playing at home with Tonka Trucks in the backyard at home. After Kindergarten class, he was working at the family restaurant learning the beginning of what would eventually become his career – owning and running the restaurant that is one of the busiest and most authentic restaurants in the Central Valley. Sal’s was awarded Best Mexican Restaurant of the Year numerous times by the California Restaurant Association.
As a young child, he swept the sidewalks and stacked empty soda bottles into crates with his older brother in the back of the original Sal’s location, a stone throw away from the current location on the 2100 block of Park Street, and an area Karl fondly calls the barrio.
“This is where we should be, where we know the kids and people here, and keep the kids on track,” he said compassionately, commenting on how life has changed for kids these days. “They need as much guidance as we can give them.”
Karl had that growing up, going from sweeping sidewalks at the restaurant to carrying tamales to customers’ cars at age 8, washing dishes and bussing tables at 13 years old, and soon after becoming a line cook.
“I was just helping out my family. Some of my friends’ helped their families in the fields. I watched my grandparents and parents from that point on the line, learning what it took,” he said, thinking back lovingly about his father Sal and how he ran the business. Sal passed away when Karl was 15 years old.
“He loved life. With customers he was a friend to everybody. He’d sit down with them and talk,” he fondly recalled. “He was a true people person. I admired that about him.”
Karl, who went to school in Selma through high school and played football and performed shotput and discuss in track, helped his brother, and their mother Eleanor take over the business after Sal passed away.
Karl, along with his sister Lorraine Salazar, now own three Sal’s Mexican Restaurants; the original Sal’s in Selma, one in Fresno established in 2001, and another in Madera that opened in 1994.
As for the Karl, he follows his father’s example with customers and staff. Everyone is part of the family, treated well and with respect. To this day, Karl greets every customer he sees.
“I want to make them feel at home and welcome. That they’re at my home and they’re at our kitchen table, mine and theirs. I want them to feel good and have a full belly when they leave, like they wish they had a bed here,” he said, with a jovial, contagious laugh.
Karl, a father of three sons and a daughter, hopes one or two of his children will continue to own and operate the business in the future, and carry on the traditions that his family established. His two adult sons, Sal and Roman currently work at the restaurant. Both sons expressed interest in operating the business in the future. His daughter, Karly, who is studying nursing, is keeping her options open, Karl said.
“My 13 year-old, Joshua, just wants to be a 13-year-old,” Karl said, with a wide grin.
So what’s next for Karl and his business partner Lorraine? First, a 75th Anniversary Celebration this year on their father’s birthday, September 16. Plans are in the works, Karl said. What else for Karl and Lorraine? Possibly opening a few more restaurants, he said.
“I’d like one more or two more, as long as we’re able to handle the quality and customer service then yes,” he said, noting they’re unsure of possible locations at this time.
“Me and my sister used to say let’s shoot for 100 restaurants. Now if we get up to five, and have the quality and have great loyal people working for us, that’s fine,” Karl said with satisfaction.
While Karl keeps extremely busy with the three restaurants, he’s also on the board of the Selma Chamber of Commerce, which named him Citizen of the Year in 2012. In addition, Karl is a member of the Smart Board, which is a faith-based organization that helps youth and adults, and is also an active Knights of Columbus member for Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church. Karl was named Knight of the Year in 2012. He has no plans of retiring from the family business anytime soon.
“No I don’t think I’m anywhere close,” he said, “Technically I’ve been making my customers’ food since I was working on the line since I was 13 years old. … I’ll be here another 30 years.”