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La Cantina expanding to Nesters, Vancouver

Restaurant founder Pepe Barajas wins Business in Vancouver's Forty Under 40 award

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For the past five years, Pepe Barajas has been sharing the culture and traditions of Mexico with the people of Whistler. Now, he's bringing a taste of his homeland to the big city as well.

"We cannot ever forget where we come from. And at the end of the day, I am able to make a living by sharing Mexican culture, which is one of the richest and oldest cultures in the world," said The Mexican Corner founder.

Next month, Barajas will add another restaurant to his growing portfolio when he opens a third La Cantina location in Downtown Vancouver. Slated for Granville and Nelson, the restaurant will expand on the menu from the current Marketplace and Function locations to offer city-goers a unique spin on the urban taco bar.

"We feel we need to give back to our customers and offer them something new," Barajas said. "We want to be a forward-thinking company so we want to constantly look at ways of improving."

There's good news for local burrito lovers, too: La Cantina will open a new spot at Nesters by year's end. It's yet another sign of Barajas' strong business acumen that saw him launch his first company in the resort, Clean Perfect, in 2011, before opening The Mexican Corner the following year.

Last month, the entrepreneur was recognized as one of Business in Vancouver's Forty Under 40, an award that highlights the fast risers of B.C.'s business scene.

"The award was very special because this is the last time I can be considered a young, up-and-coming entrepreneur," said the 39-year-old Barajas with a laugh.

Growing up in Mexico alongside a family of entrepreneurs, Barajas developed a keen interest in business early on, opening his first company, an abrasives manufacturer that operates to this day, at the tender age of 22.

"I always compared (my career in) business to a Canadian playing in the NHL, or people in Whistler who ski, snowboard and love biking. For me, it's a passion," he said.

In a market where the seasonal cycle — not to mention hefty lease rates — means new restaurants can quickly come and go, Barajas has been a steady fixture of Whistler's restaurant scene. The key to his lasting success? Investing in more than just the product.

"One of the strategies and values of the company has been to look after the team members. Especially being in hospitality, it makes sense to me that if we treat our employees well and we offer them the right working conditions, the opportunity to grow and develop, and an environment where they can thrive and be inspired, obviously that's going to have a domino effect on the way they treat customers," Barajas said of his more-than-100 employees.

Call it karma, but Barajas has been able to count on the support of his adopted home as well. When a house fire destroyed his company's staff accommodation a few years back, leaving several employees in the lurch, Barajas said Whistlerites wasted no time lending a helping hand.

"I had to stop the donations. It was so overwhelming that I had to tell people we've got more than enough. I think the employees that were affected ended up with more clothes than what they had before," he explained. "I'm just grateful to be in such an amazing community."

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