Daughter Chelsea Macaluso with father Ricky in front of the family’s restaurant, Mac’s Tex Mex in Allentown.

By Jessica Oates

Ricky Macaluso has been in the restaurant business his whole life. Whether it was as a server, a broker or a owner, Macaluso has eateries to thank for leading him across the country, to his future wife and to an array of opportunities.

That includes his latest endeavor, a casual restaurant called Mac’s Tex Mex, which has brought him a lot closer to his roots in his hometown of Allentown.

Mac’s Tex Mex, located at 4 South Main Street, is different from fast-casual chain restaurants, like Chipotle or Qdoba, that have cropped up across the country. At Mac’s, customers are seated, and burritos are prepared in the kitchen, instead of on an assembly line.

“Customers have a seat and check off all the items on a pad that they would like to have in their burrito,” Macaluso said.

It can be as simple and mild as chicken and cheese or can come stuffed with any combination of ingredients as you want, he said.

Mac’s Tex Mex is located in what was once a German restaurant called the Alps. Macaluso, who lives in Allentown with his family, said that he heard through the grapevine that the Alps was closing. A restaurant broker, Macaluso said his first instinct was to regret he didn’t get involved in the process and market the restaurant to potential buyers.

But, as fate would have it, he ran into the owner while getting his hair cut one afternoon and explained that he wasn’t selling the restaurant, but rather shutting it down.

“My wife and I decided to buy it,” said Macaluso, who first got into the restaurant business when he was in high school, working as a busboy in the restaurant where his mom worked as a waitress, the Waldwick Inn in northern New Jersey. After high school, he went on to study at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, eventually transferring to the University of Colorado at Boulder.

According to Macaluso, his real education came from working at different restaurants, starting with Chi Chi’s while he was still in college.

“I took every opportunity I could,” he said. “I lived in 15 cities and eight states in six years. I got to learn about a lot of different cuisines. When I started working at Chi Chi’s, I was 19 years old and single, so I told the management that they could put me wherever they wanted. I would go to places like New Orleans for training. I moved to Texas and lived in Houston and Austin working at different restaurants. It was awesome, and I wouldn’t do anything differently,” he said. “To this day, wherever I go, I run into people that I met at some point during my journey,” said Macaluso.

Macaluso opened his first place, the Graduate bar and restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1988. As it turned out, this was the move that would lead him to meet his wife, Debbie, who came into the restaurant one evening as a customer.

“I met her and we started dating. One day, someone at the restaurant called out, so I gave her a call and asked if she could come in and help,” Macaluso said.

Debbie still helps out on the business end of the couple’s restaurants.

“It’s nice to have the family involved,” Macaluso said. “It gives my children a nice foundation to see how the business is run, a better opportunity for them to learn than they would get working for someone else. They have experience with payroll, food ordering, inventory—they have learned a lot over the last year.”

Daughters Chelsea and Jessea, 22 and 20, both help out when they can, as does 7-year-old Christian.

“We have more than just burritos, too,” Macaluso said. “We do fajitas and different entrees and appetizers, and it is all fresh. The only things we have in our freezer are French fries and ice cream. Our fish tacos, one of the most popular items, are made with fresh haddock. We make all of our salsas and picos, and we marinade everything fresh.”

The restaurant also features a kids’ menu with favorites like chicken fingers and burgers.

Mac’s will release a new menu in a few months, which will include enchiladas and chipotle chicken cheese fries. Macaluso said the fries have been special item before, and they are always a hit.

Macaluso also owns Woody’s Towne Café, right across the street from Mac’s Tex Mex. The longtime owner of Woody’s approached Macaluso to list the restaurant as for sale, and Macaluso wound up buying it instead.

“Owning Woody’s has a tremendous amount to do with owning Mac’s,” Macaluso said. “My son plays football and baseball in town, so we meet people all the time. Everyone knows we own Mac’s, and we have gotten to know everyone, so it was good to pick up a restaurant like Woody’s.”

“For a while I was doing most of the cooking at Mac’s but I have had to train others to cook too,” he said. “I have had to divide my time between Mac’s and Woody’s lately, but ultimately, having trained others to work in the kitchen will be a huge benefit, because my favorite part of the restaurant business is interacting with my customers.”

He’ll have a chance to do so during the Allentown Harvest festival Oct. 11 and 12, when Mac’s Tex Mex will have a booth in front of the restaurant.

Mac’s Tex Mex is located at 4 South Main Street in Allentown. Phone: (609) 208-3737. Web: macstexmex.com