Pleasanton Weekly

Column - February 11, 2011

Turning a troubled business around

by Jeb Bing

The Taqueria El Balazo restaurant on Hopyard Road near the I-580 onramp has a new lease on life, thanks to a compassionate city Planning Commission but largely because Police Capt. Eric Finn thinks it's reformed. El Balazo has been in the news over the years it's been at the Pleasanton site not so much because of its Mexican cuisine (which is good) but more because of local police calls over parking lot fights and occasional federal immigration raids to round up employees who are here illegally. The Hopyard-580 interchange is known for its drug busts at nearby hotels by regulars who call the Pleasanton junction "easy off, fast and easy on" after making their purchases.

El Balazo was granted a conditional use permit in January 2005 to allow alcoholic beverages to be served between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. A mariachi band followed, first on holidays and special occasions and then more frequently. Testing the waters, the restaurant then added drink promotions with crowds, music, drinks and all spilling into the parking lot next to Burger King and other businesses that started complaining. By August 2005, police were being called regularly to curb the noise. The promotions were so successful that El Balazo owner Marino Sandoval offered special drink prices on football game night. Cover charges were added, tables and chairs were removed to create a dance area, and parties started changing the character and clientele of the once cozy small retail center. Along with patrons jamming the parking lot that served Burger King, the Best Western Pleasanton Inn and other smaller businesses, the site was becoming unsafe. Police activity increased with arrests for public drunkenness, traffic stops into and out of the El Balazo lot, and an increasing number of investigations of "suspicious vehicles" possibly carrying drugs.

By January 2007, Sandoval's business neighbors and Pleasanton police had had enough. The Planning Commission, which has authority to cancel conditional use permits as well as to issue them, called Sandoval on the carpet, ordering the restaurant to stop selling alcohol after midnight, fire its DJ and his overly amplified sound system, get rid of the live band, put the chairs and tables back to cover the dance floor, and cancel karaoke and other forms of entertainment. It worked. Sandoval, already shaken by the immigration raids, complied. Capt. Finn said that where annual patrol checks at El Balazo had been running as high as 150 a year, they've dropped to two or three. Police visits to the restaurant, once confrontational, have become conversational, with employees undergoing training to identify excessive drinkers and stop serving them and also to be aware of potential problems in the restaurant parking lot.

The turn-around in what was once one of Pleasanton's most troubling restaurants enabled Sandoval to go back to the Planning Commission to seek a modification of his conditional use permit to add live music and entertainment again. Abiding by the new restrictions and with Finn and the Police Department agreeing, Sandoval has now been allowed to extend his hours, has promised to seek prior approval from the Police Department in advance of special events, has brought back karaoke, trivia night and football game night, and made friends with the managers of Burger King, Conroy's Florist and the variety of other retail businesses and restaurants, including Super Frank's, a popular children's attraction. Even Sajit Khatri, co-owner of the Pleasanton Inn, is supporting the calmed-down El Balazo, saying the restaurant now is a great place to send guests for casual dining. Sandoval has shown that troubled businesses can gain a new lease on life by playing by the rules.

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