Aranda runs the operations and McKinney does the administrative work for New Mexican Grill, the restaurant Aranda started in 2011 at McKinney’s urging, 13 years after their divorce.
The different roles suit them and keep them from “tripping over each other,” said Aranda, who has nothing but praise for his former wife.
“We had a good divorce, you know? Friendship,” Aranda said. “And we’ve been in business since. She’s a very trustworthy person, hard worker, dedicated and has a big heart. So I’ve probably got one of the best business partners anybody could have.”
Aranda said he caught the restaurant bug growing up with parents who ran Rafaelito’s, a small Mexican food place on South Central Avenue in Phoenix. They closed it in the mid-1970s as they both were working two jobs on top of the restaurant.
But Aranda learned to cook from his mom and a grandmother living in Silver City, New Mexico. Her house always smelled of the Hatch chiles in the area that she was constantly cooking.
“When you went in her house, you had to eat,” he said. “It didn’t work any other way, so you had better go there hungry.”
Aranda has delivered pizzas, worked as an assistant manager at Taco Bell, opened a restaurant in Mesa for four years and worked as the food service manager for a nursing home.
But during the Great Recession in 2008, Aranda lost his job and could not find other work. That is when McKinney urged him to start a restaurant cooking his way—“don’t add to it, don’t take away,” she told him.
That meant cooking everything from scratch and using only Hatch chiles from New Mexico, just like his grandmother.
When he opened the restaurant in January 2011, he made enough money to pay his bills.
Business picked up over the next couple months, and with some publicity, he soon was too stressed to keep up with demand and had to expand his staff. It has gone well since then.
“When I get to work in the morning, I think about my grandma or my mom,” he said. “I always think that they’re still with me. I honestly believe that.”
Opening New Mexican Grill lifted Ralph Aranda out of the Great Recession, and it does not look like the coronavirus pandemic will end it, he said.
“The [customers] that hadn’t been around in the last few months or even a year or two back, that we haven’t been seeing them for awhile, all came back and supported us. All of them did. I’m so blessed to have great customers. I don’t even know how I can express what I feel, but it’s been total support.”
New Mexican Grill
3107 S. Lindsay Road, Ste. 101, Gilbert
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-3 p.m., closed Sun.