Terlingua is hard to spell and even more difficult to get to. No one ends up in a small desert town by accident. Located west of Big Bend National Park in Texas, the small town is at the crossroads of nowhere and hard to find.
But among the quirky atmosphere and desolate landscape, life is remarkably familiar.
With a newly filled tank of gas, I turn south and pull into a small Mexican restaurant on the eastern side of the highway. Dusty pickup trucks outnumber cars about 10 to 1. And eleven is about how many vehicles are parked in the gravel lot. The single-story building is modest, roughly the size of a double-car garage.
But as far away from what many of us consider normal, life inside the four walls is surprisingly recognizable. In the kitchen, an eclectic sound of pots, pans, and a microwave beeps fight for attention. Mom and dad work together to manage the orders coming through the window. Wooden shelves struggle under the weight of large cans waiting to be called into action. Everything in the kitchen is at arm’s reach – even each other.
The front is managed by a teenage girl, daughter to the crew working the kitchen, who shares orders in Spanish through the door or window. She’s young, her decorated fingernails tapping her iPhone between handing out menus to whoever comes through the single door. Copied so many times, the words and descriptions are faded and running together.
Behind the register on the wall is a framed newspaper clipping. A ribbon and medal lay across the story of the local boy who set a record in track and field. His family is proud as they continue to work in the kitchen around the corner.
We sometimes get lost in the popular narrative of business’s success is measured by what a financial talking head might say on television: is the business scalable and will it grow? Are they maximizing their prices and preparing to expand into another market? What is the financial exit plan?
Success in this small business located along the unforgiving desert is measured by a completely different yet equally valuable set of metrics. Inside a family is working together, each dependent on each other to play an important role in the restaurant, and to never lose sight of what is important in life – their family unit.
Diners come and go while I am sitting near the door. There is no tension between family members – only a fluid and well-oiled process of operating a small family business. Conversations bark back and forth, orders are delivered to tables with minimal fuss, and no one is rushed out the door. Their home is for the sharing with those who have come in from the hard environment.
The family business is the backbone of America. Generations of small businesses raised their families beneath their feet while serving customers. Work ethic and respect for each other were burnished into the DNA. And in Terlingua, the true American small business is still alive and well.