Small Business

‘Four voices, four hearts’: A family business is flourishing in Phoenix

June 30, 2024 | By Dianna Delling

Long, stressful days are not unusual for Emmanuell Maldonado. But the Phoenix restaurateur was especially exhausted from his recent stint in show biz.  

Earlier this month, Maldonado and his father, both huge soccer fans, had been thrilled to spend the day with Mexican footballer Héctor Herrera and actor Cristo Fernández, best known as the exuberant Dani Rojas of “Ted Lasso,” filming a video highlighting small businesses as part of Mastercard’s sponsorship of the CONMEBOL Copa América football tournament. 

And after the director called “cut,” they were back in business, preparing dishes like shrimp marinated in lime juice, grilled octopus, and mango habanero aguachile for appreciative customers at their Mexican seafood cantina Mariscos Playa Hermosa.  

“I joked with my dad, ‘We’re quitting the Screen Actors Guild,’” Maldonado says. “We don’t want to be actors!”  

As Dani Rojas likes to say, “football is life,” and for Latinos, football is a way of life, part of who they are and how they connect with one another. As part of its sponsorship of CONMEBOL Copa América, Mastercard decided to spotlight the Maldonados and provide them with Mastercard resources, like its Digital Doors small business toolkit to help them to accelerate growth in the digital economy. 

The Maldonados’ restaurant is a community gathering spot for football fans and foodies alike, says Rustom Dastoor, executive vice president for marketing and communications, Americas, at Mastercard. “They truly embody the relentless spirit we see in small business owners, and we wanted to give them a platform to shine.”  

The video, which shows Herrera and Fernández filling in at the restaurant so the Maldonados could attend the game, aired tonight during the Mexico vs. Ecuador game in Phoenix, after which the camera found the family in the stands, cheering on Team Mexico. The video also featured the Maldonados supporting his extended family in Mexico by sending home money through Paysend, which uses Mastercard’s cross-border capabilities for instant card-to-card transfers.  

Family, after all, built their restaurants, says Maldonado, who runs them with his parents and sister. “We’re four partners, we’re four voices, we’re four hearts that pour everything we have into our family businesses.”  

From a ‘long, long struggle’ to success 

Maldonado may not find a second career in front of the camera, but then he’d never thought about joining the family business, either. But in 2016, when he was fresh out of law school and studying for the Arizona bar exam, his father asked him to help out at the family restaurant. 

It was the first of many times Maldonado has had to rethink his career strategies in the face of unexpected challenges, and each time he’s come out stronger with a better business model — much of which has stemmed from adapting digital tools and technology.  

Maldonado and his three older sisters grew up helping out at the restaurant. Their parents, Jose and Maria, had moved the family from Salvatierra, Mexico, to Phoenix in 1990, just before Maldonado was born, and used their savings to buy the restaurant in 2002. But the business presented what he calls a “long, long struggle.” Having survived the 2008 recession, the restaurant was beginning to gain traction in 2016 when Maria was diagnosed with cancer and Jose faced his own serious health issues.  

“My dad came to me and he said, ‘I know you have a lot going on, but we don’t have a plan B; can you help?’” Maldonado recalls. “If you know Mexican culture, you know a Mexican man does not ask for his son’s help, so this was a very big deal.” He set aside studying for the bar exam and told his boss at a Phoenix law firm that he would be taking some time off.  

Soon a year and a half had gone by, and while his parents were on the mend, Maldonado realized he'd found his inner calling as an entrepreneur and wanted to walk in his father’s footsteps to join the family business. 

“We’re four partners, we’re four voices, we’re four hearts that pour everything we have into our family businesses.”  
Emmanuell Maldonado

He launched social media accounts for Mariscos Playa Hermosa, which attracted new customers, and began bringing in new ideas. Maldonado, his wife, Anna, and his parents would travel often, going out eating and drinking in new places from Guanajuato, in central Mexico, to Navojoa and Sonora, in the north. They came back to work with new ideas to bring to the restaurant — and people were taking notice.  

With business booming, both father and son were working 60 to 70 hours a week to keep pace, and Maldonado barely had time to spend with his newborn son. “I thought we couldn’t get any bigger,” he says — but he was mistaken.  

A pandemic pivot and a digital do-over  

When the pandemic forced shutdowns in March 2020, Maldonado found himself stuck with 400 pounds of freshly made ceviche. Eager to help feed his community, he used his extensive social media presence to notify people they were giving the fish away. They wound up sharing bags of other restaurant ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. 

To his surprise, in the weeks that followed, people supported the restaurant by requesting to-go orders. “The phone was ringing off the hook, so we started a takeout platform,” he says. Once the lockdowns ended, the restaurant was stronger than ever.  

While they had to pivot quickly, reduced pandemic hours provided the Maldonados a chance to look for ways to work smarter and more creatively. Maldonado and his father have learned to delegate some of their day-to-day operations to focus on innovation and expansion.  

They opened another Mexican restaurant in Phoenix, Cielo Rojo, in late 2023. In both locations, they aim to wow patrons with flavors and excite them with atmosphere and service. “I want you to feel the warmth of customer service,” Maldonado says. “I want you to taste the food and feel like ‘Damn, I’m in Mexico!’” 

They’re also trying to spend more time away from the restaurant together. And certainly, attending the Copa América soccer game tonight was a family outing the father and son will never forget.  

As was the day Hererra and Fernández visited their restaurant. Quips Maldonado: “We decided to make them both honorary busboys for life!” 

Dianna Delling, Contributor