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Joyce Endee

Tex Mex: Spicing up Northern N.H.

Tex Mex Cafe, owned and operated by Greg Dobbin and Kelly Leclerc, young entrepreneurs leaving their mark on Main Street. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
August 05, 2009
BERLIN — Not all the doors are boarded up on Main Street, and not all the shops are shuttered. "Going out of business" may be printed on some windows, but others hang their open sign out every day.

As part of our coverage of Berlin's economy the Reporter is profiling businesses run by young entrepreneurs. They see the empty spaces as open doors, not gaping holes. They are the Berlin of the 21st century.

This week: Greg Dobbin and Kelly Leclerc.

Greg Dobbin, 34, and Kelly Leclerc, 26, aren't married yet, but they might as well be.

Together they own and operate the Tex Mex Cafe on Main Street in downtown Berlin.

"It's more of a commitment than a marriage," said Mr. Dobbin.

The two spend more than 60 hours a week together, taking orders, cooking food, ringing up customers and washing the dishes. They are Tex Mex Cafe's only employees, so every part of the business is in their hands.

"At first I thought I was going to get chewed up pretty hard," Mr. Dobbin said, but they have been in business for more than two years. "I feel like a cafeteria for the downtown."

"We're still trying to get a feel for what people up here want," Ms. Leclerc said. "We alway find little twists to keep things from becoming boring."

The quesadillas, burritos and taco bar are not the normal North Country fare, but customers have continued to support the restaurant.

"It's a little difficult to get people to try new things," Ms. Leclerc said, but they have been willing.

"We've got a lot of loyal customers," Mr. Dobbin said.

One customer calls every day at 2 p.m. to place his takeout order. It's customers like these who sustain the business.

"When the mills closed, I didn't expect to stay open," Mr. Dobbin said, referring to the Wausau paper mill in Groveton. "It's been a struggle, but I'm still here."

Here is a funny place for Mr. Dobbin to be. A self-described "bad kid," Mr. Dobbin left Berlin after high school because he didn't see a future for himself. After a few years in Arizona, however, the allure of the North Country became apparent. He moved back, not really sure what he would do.

His fiance, who graduated high school in 2001, didn't know what should be next either. After a stint in college in Massachusetts, she returned to Berlin as well.

They both went to work in restaurants when they got back to home.

"We were doing that job anyway," Mr. Dobbin said. "Why couldn't we do it for ourselves?"

They didn't need to do payroll, they figured, because they would be the only employees, and their years of working in restaurants had prepared them to run one.

"We wouldn't be here without both our families," Mr. Dobbin said.

One family member owned the building, and other family members helped with finances. In February 2007, two months after they were engaged, they opened for business.

Mr. Dobbin never expected to own a business, to be tied to a job.

"That was for chumps," he said. But after living hard he decided it was time to make different choices. Now, he runs the back portion of the restaurant, doing much of the cooking. Ms. Leclerc handles customers, answers the phone and deals with the money.

The two said it can be tough to leave work at work after a long day, but they are happy to be working together.

With so much time invested in the business, there isn't time for much else, including a wedding.

"It's all on hold until this place settles down," Ms. Leclerc said.

Their busy schedule also keeps them from being as involved as they would like to be with other local business groups. They would like to be involved with the chamber of commerce or the Main Street Project, they said, but they don't have time to leave the kitchen. Still, they said they appreciate the events like Thunder in the Mountains and Drive In to the 50s, because it is a big help to their business.

They are looking to expand their menu option, and will have new offerings next month. They will be offering party platters soon as well. The space is available for functions, and Mr. Dobbin said if things go well he hopes to open restaurants in Groveton and Colebrook. In addition, some family members might open a tavern in the building's basement, and Tex Mex will make the food.

"We've found a market. It's moving forward," Mr. Dobbin said.

We aren't getting rich, he said, but we're surviving.

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