Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Ruben Rodriguez-Santos, 31, lives for family. He beams when talking about his 3-year-old son, Ruben Alexander. Hopping up from the booth near the front door, which allows a constant stream of customers in and out, Rodriguez-Santos goes to retrieve his uncle, Alex Sivira, from the back.
"My uncle is my biggest motivator; I wouldn't be anywhere without him," he says. "He continues to push me."
Rodriguez-Santos came to Jackson from Caracas, Venezuela, when he was 15 years old. A talented tennis player, he was offered full scholarships to various colleges in the U.S., but his parents chose Hinds Community College in Jackson. His older brother and his uncle, then a teacher at Hinds, already resided in the metro, making the choice an easy one.
After graduating from Hinds, Rodriguez-Santos took a year off, working for a while in the airline industry. He then attended the Hinds Jackson campus to complete a study in hotel/restaurant management. Then, he moved on to the University of Southern Mississippi to earn his bachelor's in accounting.
"You have to have passion to work in this industry. In the restaurant business, you are there when it opens at 10 a.m. until it closes at 2 a.m. But it is something you can do now and in six hours, see the results," Rodriguez-Santos says. "Working with people is so rewarding. You serve them, you feed them, you get to know them. I love it!"
Sivira and Rodriguez-Santos opened their first restaurant together in 1998—an Italian restaurant called Panino's in Hattiesburg. In 2003, they opened a Panino's in Jackson, in the Quarter on Lakeland Drive (in the old Poet's location). Their latest project, Alexander's (named for Rodriguez-Santos' son and Sivira), in Madison, opened Feb. 2, 2006.
"Our goal is to make our restaurants feel like home. The patrons become family to us. They can come in and eat great, made-to-order Italian cuisine, and turn around and enjoy a great band, like Meet the Press, afterwards," Rodriguez-Santos says.
In November, the family hosted Squat and Gobble to raise money for the Magnolia Speech School. They also hosted a Christmas social in December, which featured music, a silent auction and wine tasting, with all proceeds going to the American Lung Association.
"It can get better here. We need to promote our state, keep money in Jackson and support all the talent in this town. There are some amazing people here," he says.
When not in one of the restaurants or out on the tennis courts, Rordriguez-Santos can be spotted most Thursdays at 12:45 p.m., cooking on WLBT