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Leticia Espinoza, left, owner of Taqueria Mexican Grill in Walnut Creek, Calif., shares a laugh with worker Maria Ramirez, right, Wednesday Sept. 15, 2010 in Walnut Creek Calif. Espinoza, who took over ownership last month, feels by making some fundamental changes that business will turn around.(Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

WALNUT CREEK -- Every day before she opens the doors to her business here, Leticia Espinoza recites a mantra over and over that she hopes will come true: "Make 3,000 dollars per day. Make 3,000 thousand dollars per day. ..."

Espinoza has been the new owner of Taqueria Mexican Grill for a little more than a month, but the business has been located downtown at 1359 Locust Street since 1977. Espinoza has been in the restaurant business since she was 18 years old, working most of that time at the MexiCali Rose in Oakland and later at a restaurant of the same name in San Leandro. She started as a waitress and cashier and finished as an owner in 2003.

Now 57, she had retired from the industry to work in sales at Sears in Concord until her nephew told her the taqueria was available.

Her nephew, Nate Mora, owner of Pleasant Hill Market, delivered produce to Taqueria Mexican Grill. When he learned that the restaurant was looking for new ownership, he felt his aunt and uncle would be perfect for it.

"My nephew told us the place was really down in customers, but that it's a good place and that we could make it come back," Espinoza said. "I think that we definitely can."

In the past, they had worked where customers sat down and a full wait staff was necessary. With a taqueria, the orders are made at the counter, so only cashiers and cooks are necessary to run it. A total of six people work at the restaurant.

To get the restaurant, Espinoza and her husband Javier paid about $35,000, and currently are bringing in about $1,000 each day, just enough for her to break even after expenses. The rent is $6,000 a month. When she owned the San Leandro restaurant, rent was half that.

By making several tweaks to a restaurant she feels is already rich in tradition, Espinoza feels she can turn the ship around and make her goals come true. Part of that belief, however, rests on faith.

"In this economy you have to have faith that you can do it," Espinoza said. "It's something you have to tell yourself every day."

The Espinozas quickly fell in love with the eatery. However, they received a surprise when, about the same time they started in June, a second Mexican restaurant, Cinco de Mayo, opened across the street.

Still, with 23 years at the location, Espinoza believes they will prevail.

"We still have people who've been coming here for 20 years and the cooks know what they want before they arrive," she said.

Because there are so many regulars at the restaurant, the two owners didn't want to change much. Instead, they wanted to make additions. For example, there are now six types of salsa instead of two. The color theme of the restaurant is yellow and she has already ordered new signage that will be green, white and red. Extras such as guacamole, chips and salsa are now free.

They also plan to add to the menu several new items such as chili Colorado and steak ranchero.

Even though Espinoza sees smooth waters ahead, the industry as a whole has been roughed up in recent years. The California Restaurant Association estimates that there are about 90,000 eating or drinking establishments in the state, giving Espinoza plenty of competition.

"It's still a pretty challenging time in this industry because as consumers continue to struggle, there's a lack of disposable income out there for most folks," said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the association.

However, the fact that taquerias straddle the quick service and casual dining line, the impact of the economy might not be as severe, Conway said, because those who go out to eat are looking for cheaper options than before.

"Even though it's much harder than the past, if you have the right concept, right look, and right aesthetic, you can still do amazingly well," Conway said. "And the family-owned ones take this personally, so they will fight to do everything they can to succeed."

Company: Taqueria Mexican Grill
Owners: Leticia and Javier Espinoza
Employees: 6
Address: 1359 Locust Street, Walnut Creek
Phone: 925-932-8987
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.