599 S Collier Blvd,, Marco
Life is just a bowl of Nachos Grande for Eric Phillips, and if you factor in his cooking talents and business philosophy of treating his employees right at Nacho Mama’s cantina/restaurant — he could be in the running for the Marco Island Chamber of Commerce poster child (ahem, business) of the year!
“You bet,” Executive Chef/owner Eric Phillips agreed enthusiastically after we commented things were looking good during our “In the Kitchen” interview on April 9 at the new, gentrified Nacho Mama’s in the recently renamed and up-scaled Marco Walk.
Then we discovered the reason for his enthusiasm — “I’m having a baby tomorrow — actually my wife is and I’ll be shouting `It’s a girl!’ said the visibly elated Chef Martin, noting that sophisticated medical technology now makes it possible to predict both gender and date of birth. “We have three boys and one more tomorrow, our girl, makes our family complete.
“I’m very happy. I have my restaurant and I’m still here,” he explained, “I was born in Metuchen, N.J., and after graduation from the local Catholic High School I spent two years majoring in meteorology at Lyndon State College in Vermont. It was tough, the professor gave you a problem and a month to do it and that was your test — the highest grade was a 60. I didn’t like rain. At 30 degrees it’s miserable so I gave it up.
“Before I came down here I was working as a chef in New York. I moved to Marco Island when my best friend from college invited me to join him down here in 1988 - 89. He left to pursue communication/entertainment interests in California and I stayed. I met my wife and got married here,” Chef Phillips said, adding that he was initially the manager and chef when Nacho Mama’s opened here (it was called Mission Plaza) in February 1998.
For a nostalgic look back, here’s a snippet from one of my old Nacho Mama’s restaurant reviews not too long after Nacho Mama’s won 2001 Platinum Plate award winner for Best Mexican Restaurant on Marco Island:
Incidentally, don’t be put off by the restaurant’s outside appearance — bare wood studs and framing covered with see-through plastic coated screening material (keeps out the elements and cool air in) and substitutes for conventional walls on the front and sides. Inside, there’s a substantial L-shaped bar lined with virtually tip-proof barstools and equally sturdy tables and chairs (painted garden green that wobble not) arranged in groups for four and more in the open space in front of the bar with neon “art” hung here and there. I’d call it funky, friendly and “floozilly” delightful in its own inimitable way (maybe a beachside bar in Puerto Vallarta?).
That having been said, let’s fast forward.
“The little shack was easy compared to this,” Chef Phillips said, waving his arm in an arc past plate glass windows that line both the side wall and also the front wall up to the restaurant’s main entrance. There’s a small forest of umbrella covered tables and chairs, for al fresco dining, occupying the part of Marco Walk’s central courtyard that’s in front of Macho Mama’s. Inside there are strategically located TV screens, and past the splendid horseshoe bar encircling a service island for the full service bar (including 16 premium tequilas) there’s two rows of comfortably upholstered booths and a back door opening out into a walkway. The walls are adorned with colorful serapes and equivalent artifacts, and a large poster depicting a posturing matador supplants the old Nacho neon art.
“Actually, many called it `the tent,’ you either liked it or you didn’t,” he reminisced, “There I had eight employees, now I have 30. There I was the manager and cook, here I have three managers and myself and 30 people working including bartenders and cooks. I still do cook on Wednesday and Saturday nights now, of course, but I don’t want to take hours away from my staff. The grill position carries 50 percent of the line and the sauté, fryer and expediter share the rest. This place — we turn and burn 500 meals a night — each ticket averages 15 to 20 minutes done or there’s a problem in the kitchen and the expediter stays on top and makes sure things move along,” Chef Phillips explained.
“You know, soon after I moved to Florida I met Tony Raimone and he gave me a job as cook in Crazy Flamingo. After a while he asked me if I wanted to be general manager. Sure, I said — he never ordered me around. We became good partners at the Crazy Flamingo. In 1997, he told me he found a place that went belly up called the South Beach Grille and he wanted a new restaurant and did I want to run it. It’s February ’98 and I’m still running back and forth — soon after I left the Crazy Flamingo to run Nacho Mama’s full time.
“Here, I run a different special menu every week — appetizer, a fresh Mex entrée, frozen drink, and a frozen milkshake. I don’t have any illusions about being an upscale place. I’m what most Americans like — burritos, quesadillas, and nacho grandes. What I’m trying to say is I want the grandparents to come with the grandkids. We’re definitely kid friendly and I do want people to know that. I’m Nacho Mama’s Tex Mex American and my sign out front says so!
“The good thing about all this — the big new place — I have good people working for me. Rose has been with me since day one; she started the day I opened. I had two cooks in the old place and one manager; I went from 50 seats to 200 including the courtyard — the five people that came with me makes it special because they knew what I wanted to do. Also, I added 10 — 12 new dishes, got rid of a few and added a few more.”
Chef Phillips emphasized that he believed it was important to be consistent, even the food, the liquor and the entertainment.
“You go someplace expecting it to open and get there to find they’re closed is very disappointing and word gets out — I go year round; two piece band and DJ from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I run a Happy Hour twice a day, 3 to 5 p.m. in season and 3 to 6 p.m. starting in June, and my second Happy Hour goes from 10 p.m. to midnight, Sunday through Wednesday.”
Speaking of happy — Yes, Chef Phillips and his wife Nancy are the happy parents of a new baby girl they named Jade, and yes, she was born as scheduled!
“I’m very pleased that I can depend on the people I have working for me — and how it gives me a little more time off to enjoy my family. We recently moved and it’s nice to be only one and a half miles from work. I spend my day here — I just don’t answer the phone!