Salena’s Mexican Restaurant
This month I am featuring Selena’s Mexican Restaurant owned by Kelly & Aaron Metras. I sat down with the long-time restauranteurs and discussed the ups and downs of being a woman-owned business and how they have made accessibility a focal point of everything they do at the restaurant.
Salena’s Mexican Restaurant opened in 1998, in the Village Gate (located in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts) in the space currently occupied by Polizzi’s. At the time the restaurant was named Maria’s Mexican Restaurant (Maria’s maintains a location in the town of Webster). Kelly Metras was hired in 1999 during the restaurant’s expansion and relocation to its current location. She met her now husband Aaron around the same time and after years of working in front of the house and learning just about every position; the couple was approached by the owner to consider buying the place. At the time, Kelly worked full-time as a Special education teacher at a Hillside day treatment program and Aaron was promoted to the role of General Manager. It took them no time at all to decide to take the owner up on the offer and purchase the establishment in 2011.
Those early years of restaurant management were challenging to say the least and despite the typical pitfalls and mistakes Kelly and Aarons’ combined experience as well as her cultivated network of woman-owned restauranteurs and business owners helped them to weather those early storms.
A Culture of Care
Kelly and Aaron have cultivated a culture of care with their staff. As Kelly recalls, “the previous owner as a human really took care of the staff” and that sense of camaraderie is a value that has lasted. She supports her staff in their endeavors outside of the restaurant and truly understands that restaurant work is not a forever career for everyone and that’s ok. Community care and support are intrinsic to who Kelly is as a business owner and that is seen in the networking community she co-founded a few years back called Bossy Roc. Bossy started with Kelly and her co-founder holding venting sessions as fellow special education teachers. As fate would have it both women bought restaurants in the same year and eventually held a happy hour for other women entrepreneurs. Fifteen women attended their first happy hour which greatly exceeded their expectations and has since grown into a networking group of over 500 local women entrepreneurs. Bossy’s mission is to unite women business owners through in-person & virtual networking events, educational workshops, and a private forum offering support, advice & resources.
Evolution of Gluten-Free
Generally speaking, traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine inherently lend itself to being gluten-free. Still, Kelly has admittedly not always been as familiar with the nuances of celiac disease and gluten-free contamination as she is now. Over the years she has taken her experiences learning from friends and family and applied this to her restaurant. Through these conversations, she has learned that cross-contamination is the biggest issue when it comes to dining out with celiac disease. As the restaurant’s menu has expanded there are more opportunities for cross-contamination. This fact along with the increased prevalence of celiac disease has made it a priority for Kelly and her team to replace items and ingredients that pose a potential risk. They have added a special button to their POS system and trained servers to ask detailed and specific questions when interacting with patrons. When it comes to gluten-free accessibility at Salena’s it begins with education. Kelly has been very intentional about training staff to be intentional when interacting with gluten-free customers and making sure they know if a person has celiac, is gluten intolerant or has a wheat allergy.
Says Kelly, “During COVID we had lots more time to make allergy-friendly menus, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian and a soy-free menu and other changes that were long overdue”. Another change they made is taking peanut butter off the menu and also soybean oil. Their “hot-line” is completely gluten-free. Making instructions clear and consistent helps servers learn the menu and therefore communicate this to customers.
Gluten-free patrons appreciate this due diligence and are grateful when an eatery’s staff knows the complexities of living gluten-free. Kelly and her team is always asking the question “How can we make everyone have as positive of an experience as possible.” In addition to all of this, they take feedback very seriously. Although feedback is not always delivered with kindness; Kelly understands that feedback is very important and that there’s always a level of truth in a comment. Instead of focusing on how the message is delivered Kelly asks her team “What can we make better from this piece of feedback?”
In fact, a member of the Gluten-Free Rochester community shared a recent experience where they go sick from eating at the restaurant. Kelly and the team immediately went into investigative mode and traced the source of contamination, found the issue, and made a process and systems change. This was then communicated to the customer. For anyone with celiac disease, eating out is always a risk no matter how careful a restaurant is and this type of due diligence goes a long way in reducing instances of potential cross-contamination.
What I appreciate most about Salena’s approach is that they are putting in the effort and doing the work. They don’t claim to be perfect but they are doing what it takes to make their food and restaurant gluten-free friendly and creating systems and processes that make their restaurant accessible to everyone. The local eateries that truly understand the context and nuance of what it means to be gluten-free are few and far between. Salena’s is taking their gluten-free friendliness to the next level with the opening of a dedicated gluten-free/allergen-friendly commissary/production kitchen. This kitchen is equipped with a dedicated gluten-free fryer and will process all the food for their soon-to-be-opened taquería. This quick service model will open in the town of Greece and feature a menu of Salena’s most popular items. The beauty of this new model is that the whole family will be able to eat whether they eat meat, are vegan, or have celiac disease.
During my visit, I was able to sample the Loaded Nachos which now, thanks to the commissary kitchen are completely gluten-free. I was hardly prepared for the massive platter of nachos that came out. This is definitely a dish for sharing and the nachos can be customized to be vegetarian or vegan. Another popular dish that is naturally gluten-free but can also be vegan is Stuffed Avocados. Filled with quinoa, black beans, and other proteins, this is Kelly’s favorite menu item. Salenas is putting in the work and doing what it takes to not only make their restaurant gluten-free friendly but keep it gluten-free friendly.
If you go
Address: 302 North Goodman Street (Village Gate) (NOTA)
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 12 PM – 9 PM, Friday & Saturday 12 PM – 10 PM & Sunday 12 PM – 8 PM
Available for: Private books, events, and weddings
For your first visit try: Loaded Nachos or Stuffed Avocado
Fun Fact: Formerly known as Maria’s Mexican Restaurant and many of the recipes are also on Maria’s menu in the town of Webster.