Ellis Winstanley and his wife are real-life restaurant lifeguards. They have earned a reputation in Texas for saving traditional restaurants who has fallen on hard times for one reason or another. “A lot of times things have just lost their way a bit and there’s no major change,” said Winstanley. “JJust a thousand incremental improvements and you’re constantly doing it better and better and it takes off.”
Sometimes it means changing organization of physical space; other times, is making small adjustments to the recipe ingredients and not finished-preparation, Chopped off down on the waste. In the case of El Arroyo, it was about refining the voice of the brand through a physical sign outside the restaurant.
The Winstanleys bought the El Arroyo restaurant in Austin, Texas in 2012 (one of four restaurants they currently own) and haven’t had to change much about the well-known place’s food. loved, who opened in 1975. Early efforts focused on connecting with people through fun, sometimes uplifting (often taco or margarita-related) signs outside the restaurant that said things like “Yes, I know that guac is awesome but so am I” and “It’s OK if you break down sometimes / tacos fall apart and we still love their.”
“The sign was still there in El Arroyo,” Winstanley says. “When we bought it, the sign didn’t have much consistency in its message. It was funny normally, but sometimes it was rude funny, sometimes it was mean fun, and sometimes it was soft fun, and it was just all over the place. We gave him more voice and it was about uplifting people, making them feel better, and so he gradually gained followers on social media, and then in COVID was in a really good place to contribute.
Photos of the signs quickly started going viral and now El Arroyo is known on the internet. I sat down with Ellis Winstanley to discuss how he used signs to raise money for restaurantschange liquor laws in Texas and connect people around the world.
The Takeout: During the pandemic, we have seen many restaurants close and lose their way. How did you work to save restaurants in your community back then?
Ellis Winstanley: El Arroyo held the first live fundraiser, the first live concert of the El Arroyo sign. Someone on our team had a relationship with Robert Earl Keen and arranged this, then organized with the Texas Restaurant Association and the office of the governor, which, political or not, it was about helping people. The Texas Restaurant Association set up something called the Texas Restaurant Relief Fund, the TRRF, and so it was in the beginning, all the big companies kept their money, nobody really knew what was going to happen, but it was really about helping independent restaurants. We raised $27,000, so not a huge amount of money compared to some of the other efforts, but it was the very first effort.
We also got through the pandemic, we didn’t lay off anyone in any of our stores, so we focused all of our energy on El Arroyo. We said, “If we’re going to fight this, we’re going to have a spear point and that’s where we’re going to do it.” So all of our employees from the other restaurants came to work at El Arroyo, whatever they wanted. In fact, we hired anyone in the restaurant industry who wanted to work. We had scooter companies bringing in 40 pre-loaded scooters and various packaged food companies coming in to supply 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 get that message across, and then we realized we could be a delivery business. We basically found in the law a way to become a delivery company. We worked with the governor’s office and the restaurant association to get it passed into law so all restaurants could do it. We basically put up the “Now would be a good time to legalize margarita delivery” sign and a few days later we said “Holy shit, I’m not even kidding, margarita delivery” with our phone number and our phones crashed immediately.
TO: I have to admit that when I started seeing the sign all over social media with so many posts, I assumed it was a photoshopped meme because of the number of different versions I have seen.
EW: It’s super interesting to see people’s reactions when they find out it’s real. Lots of people pass by on any given day, people drive by, stop, get out and put their arm around him, take a picture of him like an old friend.
TO: How did the billboards start to get attention online?
You get a lot of messages from people saying “just so you know, I was going through a terrible time in my life and this really helped me.” Tthe hat is pretty cool.
TO: Is there a sign that stuck out to you from the start that was part of a big online pop?
EW: There are many. They do a lot of brand partnerships, we did a brand partnership with Netflix which was for weird eye when that revived, and it got a lot of traction. But also one of my favorites was “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do, it’s my ankle.
TO: This is the one a lot of my friends sent me because I have really bad ankles.
EW: For sure-when you connect with him, you connect with him. There are many like that. Obviously, there are some who are more serious, like that of Uvalde. There was the one we did on Ukraine who said, “So it turns out that one comedian’s courage can rally an entire planet.” It’s interesting because most of them are funny, but some say “I don’t know how many tacos it takes to be happy, but right now it’s not 23.” From different angles, different people connect.
There’s a whole bunch of people running it, but a lot of them are now user-submitted. So we started about four years ago encouraging people following the page to send signs and now we’re getting some really good ones – two, three days a week, that’s the user –stuff submitted.
TO: How do you see this online popularity translate to the restaurant itself in terms of customer numbers and financial support?
EW: There are many people who come to the restaurant because they know the sign. Ihe’s a traffic driver, for sure. Originally we wanted to publish a book of signs, and publishers were saying, “It’s too specialized a product, nobody’s going to buy it.””So we did it ourselves. We ended up selling twice that first Christmas. Once we finally received all the books to fill those orders, we shipped them all, then my wife put the rest in her car and drove around San Antonio, Houston and dallas do business with retailers as she could. And it took off, so they launched more products and now it’s hundreds of product biases which are sold at retailers in 48 states and Canada, shipped all over the world. It’s amazing how this connection can be developed, and it all started with a brand voice that connected with people.
TO: Do you think there’s a difference in you creating this physical sign before it goes live, as opposed to just posting smart tweets every day?
EW: I guess I don’t know how to know if there is or not. I think with anything brand consistency is important so we look at the sign itself because it obviously has personality and funk it’s different it’s a consistent delivery medium , but the voice is what people really connect to. I think it’s easy to say “oh, it’s that sign, it works”, but it’s really the voice.
TO: From your experience, 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 help. It’s the first place people ask to sponsor their little league jerseys or give them a raffle card for the organization they’re trying to raise money for.. And they are also normally the first to intervene in case of a problem.
So be it like COVID and restaurants turning to selling groceries, or even the frosts that happened in Texas – I know of at least three restaurant workers who drove to cook every morsel of food in their cooler because hospitals couldn’t get food delivered and there were all these stranded patients there – IThese are the kinds of decisions that restaurants make every day. Eespecially in times of disaster, it’s always the first to respond and the first place to go, and I think it’s become hyper focus during COVID. It’s easy to take what you have in restaurants for granted. Jhey’re the glue of the community.