Monday, November 29, 1999
The man behind the Muy Grande Village
Day includes a gamut of different tasks
By Mary Lee Grant
- Age: 59
- Occupation: small business owner
- Quote: "I try to respect all people, and I think they come because they feel at home here.''
FREER - Lionel Garza stands by the side of his restaurant in the early morning, barbecuing with mesquite wood, a beer can filled with gasoline, and pounds of fajitas. Friends stop by and talk, as they watch the smoke rise.
"I do this every day of the week,'' said Garza, 59, a small restaurateur who serves only one food item - fajita tacos on homemade tortillas topped with pico de gallo, downed with coffee, beer or soft drinks.
"That is all these guys want to eat,'' he said gesturing to the tables where crews of roughnecks with their names embroidered on their shirts and hunters decked out in camouflage clothes hunch over their foil-wrapped tacos. They share tall tales about deer and wild hogs and shenanigans of folks they know.
Garza starts his day at Muy Grande Village at about 7 a.m., and he works until at least 8 p.m. cooking food, serving it, signing up hunters for his deer hunting contest, telling tall tales of his own and selling real estate.
"Sometimes I am here until midnight or 2 a.m., just talking with people,'' said Garza, who is nicknamed "Muy.''
In the evenings, friends bring guitars, sing, and sometimes dance to old Hank Williams songs.
Dale Crenwelge, a real estate developer from Fredicksburg, said he always stops by Garza's restaurant when he comes to the area to hunt.
"I find out how the hunting is, and catch up on everything,'' he said.
Fernando Perez of Hebbronville, who sells hunting trips to people from all over the nation, said that Garza's restaurant is an institution on State Highway 44 between Alice and Laredo.
"Everyone knows him,'' Perez said. "People come to the restaurant just to pick on Lionel. He has always got something interesting to say about himself, or about someone else. This is the gossip center of South Texas.''
Muy Grande Village didn't start out that way. It started out as a filling station, which Garza didn't even own.
"I was just trying to make a living, driving a gasoline truck, when I got a chance to run this filling station,'' he said.
Garza, who grew up doing migrant work, only received a sixth-grade education. But that didn't dim his ambitions.
"There was another service station across the street, and I would run over there and ask people what they liked about that station,'' he said. "Then I would try to get them to come to mine. I'd do anything I could to get customers.''
One of Garza's ploys to attract customers was to start a deer hunting contest.
"Each time people shot a deer, they came in,'' he said. "That brought us the hunters' business.''
He plastered the walls with photos of hunters and their deer, but the filling station owner made him take them down.
No more pumping gas
After he bought the business, he could do as he pleased and now the walls are covered with photos of people, some of the famous such as Earl Campbell and Nolan Ryan, showing their trophy deer.
He doesn't sell gasoline anymore.
"In the bust in the 1980s, I gave away too much on credit,'' he said. "Everyone went bankrupt and no one could pay.''
He has taken up the slack by catering to hunters. As well as sponsoring the Muy Grande Deer Contest, which Garza said he wants to be "as big as Texas and as wide as the Rio Grande,'' he sells ammunition, videos of deer kills near Freer, gutting knives, camouflage clothing, deer feed and country music tapes. About every hour, a pickup with a whitetail lashed to the back pulls up at the restaurant, where Garza inspects it as possible entry to the contest, in which he offers $5,000 in prize money.
Real estate broker
Garza came to know the hunting territory so well through the patrons of his restaurant that friends suggested he start selling ranches and hunting leases.
A cardboard sign in the window advises "Before you buy a ranch from someone else, contact me, L.R. Garza. I know the territory.''
"Now I make more money from that than anything, and I make most of my contacts here at the restaurant,'' he said.
In the afternoons, when business is slow and the fajitas are all cooked, he takes prospective buyers out in his pickup to look over ranches in the surrounding areas. He recently sold a ranch to quarterback Ty Detmer, a Heisman trophy winner who plays for the Cleveland Browns.
Garza said he thinks that it is his way with people as much as his spicy pico de gallo that keeps customers coming.
"The thing I like best about this is making it a gathering place for everybody,'' he said. "I try to respect all people, and I think they come because they feel at home here.''
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