It’s been over a year and a half since Leoh Sandoval opened Aguas Way in North Long Beach with the help of his family.
Since opening the Mexican street food spot, which specializes in various types of aguas frescas (Mexican fruit drinks), the family has not only been able to spend more time with each other, but also build new skills and learned a few lessons along the way.
One of those lessons was the importance of air conditioning.
“It changed everyone’s moods,” Sandoval said of the heat employees faced during the restaurant’s first months. “When it was hot people were uncomfortable and pissed.”
Eight months in, they bought the AC.
The new venture is a first for the whole family. No one had ever run a restaurant, but that didn’t stop them from trying. With their own skills and trades, everyone has a role in the restaurant.
While the menu includes the popular California fries and chicken flautas, it’s the aguas frescas Sandoval’s mother was known for at family parties that started it all.
The task of making the drinks and exploring new flavors has given her a sense of purpose and helps keep her active, he said.
Today, you can choose anything from the traditional Jamaica and horchata flavors to cucumber and mango with the option of tajin, a type of chile powder, lining the rim of the cups.
Before Sandoval’s brother-in-law became the restaurant’s cook—the first cooking job he’s ever had—he was just “the weekend barbecue guy,” Sandoval said. Yet his passion for cooking led him to rise to the occasion.
“The first day we started thinking about [opening the restaurant], he Googled [recipes], read books,” Sandoval said.
According to Sandoval’s sister, his brother-in-law would even wake up in the middle of the night talking about food.
He’s since built management skills as he oversees other employees in the kitchen.
Then there’s Sandoval’s artist wife who would write up the menu, and Sandoval himself, whose day job is working as an architectural designer, tasked with marketing and handling the bills. Another relative was brought on for his construction skills.
As the family has been able to come closer together—they see each other more often now and even share breakfast together on the weekends—the restaurant itself has become a place where neighbors get to meet each other or old acquaintances can catch up.
Sandoval has heard of cases where friends that “live in the same street but didn’t know or see each other and run into each other here,” he said.
Recognizing the need for a community hangout place in the city’s northside, Sandoval said he purposely wanted to open the restaurant near his neighborhood, where he’s lived for 15 years (he’s lived in the city itself for 35 years).
“We wanted to bring Downtown uptown,” said Sandoval.
It’s worked and then some. They’ve gained loyal customers who know them by name, hug them, and one man was such a big fan that he got married at the restaurant, which also catered the wedding.
They’ve also hosted company parties, baptisms and other special events.
And while it may be the food and drinks bringing people back, sometimes it’s the name of the restaurant itself, a play on a Spanish slang phrase meaning roughly “Watch out dude!” that gets people in the door.
Sandoval said a pair once walked in the restaurant after spotting it while driving down Long Beach Boulevard.
“Two guys were driving and one guy was going a little fast and the passenger yells out Aguas Way!” said Sandoval. “He thought he was telling him watch out!”
Sandoval said while he is currently focusing on customer service and getting to a comfortable spot with the business, one of his long-term goals is to open a smaller version of Aguas Way at a mall. That version would focus on the aguas frescas, with it’s fresh fruits as opposed to syrup and no ice to water it down.
“It makes a big difference,” he said.
Aguas Way is located on 5248 Long Beach Blvd.