Cocina Madrigal in Phoenix ranked #1 on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in 2022.
Check out Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in 2023 and catch up on stories of past winners.
In the Madrigal family, Sunday night dinners are sacred. Other nights of the week, brothers Edson and Brian Madrigal and their father Leo can be found greeting guests, bussing tables, or preparing food at the Mexican restaurant they co-own in South Phoenix, Arizona. But on Sundays, they gather the family and celebrate the way they always have: cooking and eating together.
So when Brian summoned the family to his home on the Sunday before Christmas, no one suspected he had life-changing news to share: After just four years in business, Cocina Madrigal placed number one on Yelp’s 2022 Top 100 Places to Eat list.
“When I got the phone call and they told me that we made the Top 100, that was amazing in and of itself,” Brian said. “But then when they continued and let me know that we were number one, honestly, it was one of the greatest feelings of pride that I’ve ever experienced.”
Even greater was getting to share the news with his father, Leo, whose passion and dedication paved the way for Cocina Madrigal and the whole family’s success in the restaurant industry.
“My father, he’s very humble and he’s achieved quite a bit in his career, but we tend not to think about [our accomplishments] too much,” Brian said. “We appreciate them, we take it for what it is at the moment, but we kind of just refocus and look at the future. Being able to tell my father, who’s worked so hard his whole life, what he was able to achieve was really a special moment.”
After decades of hard work, the Top 100 gave Leo the national recognition he deserved. The Madrigals announced their win on The Kelly Clarkson Show and welcomed a surge of new customers to the business, spreading their brand far and wide. The increased attention brought its own challenges, but the family proceeded the way Leo taught them—putting their customers and community first.
Staying close to home
Cocina Madrigal started in the real cocina Madrigal: Leo’s kitchen. The chef learned how to cook from his grandmother in Mexico City, and after immigrating to the United States as a young man, he worked his way up from a dishwasher to executive chef at Z’tejas Grill, a restaurant chain serving Southwestern cuisine across Texas and Arizona.
Leo’s sons inherited their father’s love of food, as well as his work ethic and attention to detail. “The last thing we really took from my father is his sincerity, his genuineness, and how that translates to business,” Brian said. “Just doing your absolute best to make sure that your customers are enjoying themselves and appreciate what you’re providing them.”
But after years of satisfying customers in corporate kitchens, Leo longed to open a restaurant of his own. In 2016, the Madrigals pooled their savings to buy and renovate an empty storefront in their neighborhood of South Phoenix, just five minutes from the airport. The area is considered a food desert, meaning that residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.
We knew there was a need for it, and we knew that the community wanted to support something that was their own.brian madrigal
“The challenge here for people of the community is there’s not many restaurant options in our part of town, and the options that do exist are primarily fast food or corporate chains,” Brian said. “So when we were looking in terms of where we wanted to set up our restaurant, we thought the best place would be close to home. We knew there was a need for it, and we knew that the community wanted to support something that was their own.”
By choosing to stay in South Phoenix, where they could meet their community’s needs, the Madrigals set themselves apart. Within days of the launch, curious customers began stopping by to see what had opened in the neighborhood. Leo welcomed them into the restaurant to sample his non-traditional Mexican fare, including Oaxaca fundido, beef tenderloin steak tacos, and wild mushroom enchiladas topped with ancho mole—a hit with vegetarians and meat lovers alike. “Knowing the needs of the community, the community rallied behind us and started supporting us from the beginning,” Brian said.
Letting the people lead
After pouring their savings into renovating the restaurant, the Madrigals had no budget left for marketing. But they did claim and complete their business page on Yelp—and almost immediately, word of mouth took off.
They got their first 5-star review in June 2018, just days after opening: “What an amazing new restaurant,” Yelp reviewer E.L. wrote. “I don’t even know how to describe the [beef tenderloin steak] tacos. The seasoning, the chipotle pomegranate marinade, the sauce, and fried peppers! FRIED PEPPERS! The texture combination in this alone makes it better than almost everyone else’s tacos, but then add beef tenderloin—so tender it melts in your mouth… mind blowing.”
How did Cocina Madrigal see such early engagement on Yelp? Brian said: “We like things to be organic. If we get [a review or a Top 100 nomination], great. If not, that’s okay too. We let our guests and our customers drive those achievements.”
Instead of asking for reviews (which is against Yelp’s policy), the Madrigals focused on satisfying their customers, who shared their experiences with more people on Yelp—until one review snowballed into more than 3,000. Brian said: “Yelp is one of those channels where it’s led by the people. People share their real experiences, they give their honest feedback, and I think that’s why it’s such a trustworthy source.”
The restaurant also benefits from its proximity to the Phoenix airport, where hungry travelers land ready to scour Yelp for great Mexican food. But most importantly, the team provides great customer service—and lets the quality experience speak for itself. “We’re not really doing anything above and beyond,” Brian insisted. “We just recognize that our guests have taken the time and are choosing to spend that time at our restaurant, so we want to give them the best experience possible.”
In 2019, the Madrigals received even more proof their strategy was working: The restaurant placed 68th on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat. The next year, with even more engagement on Yelp and a higher profile in the Arizona food scene, they secured the 5th spot.
Still, nothing is ever certain in the restaurant world: Already facing losses from the pandemic, the family didn’t make the 2021 list due to changes in the nomination process—Yelp started using submissions from the Yelp community to curate the list, making self-promotion more important than ever for the Madrigals.
“Going into the next year, we didn’t really change anything in our strategy,” Brian said. “We still try to offer the best cuisine and the best service that we possibly can to our guests.” But he did make a Facebook post letting his followers know that Top 100 nominations had opened.
Then, the night before nominations closed, Brian wrote on Facebook: “Cocina Madrigal is my father Leo Madrigal’s testament that passion, hard work, and dedication will help you fulfill your dreams. Although not one to celebrate his achievements, being recognized as a two-time winner of Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat is certainly one of his proudest moments. With the help of my friends, family, and Yelp Phoenix, I’d greatly appreciate your support in nominating Cocina Madrigal for the award in 2022.”
To get that [call] was definitely shocking, but at the same time, it validated all the work that we’ve done and the sacrifices we’ve made to help launch this business and continue to grow it.brian madrigal
One month later, he got the fateful call from Yelp. “It felt like we had won the NFL championship,” he said. “To get that [call] was definitely shocking, but at the same time, it validated all the work that we’ve done and the sacrifices we’ve made to help launch this business and continue to grow it.”
On top of the world
Thinking back to the Sunday when he gave his family the news, Brian said he still gets emotional: “Everybody was so happy. It was the best news we could have heard. It felt like an early Christmas present because we appreciate everything that Yelp and the Yelp community has done for us. Being recognized in this way was truly a heartfelt moment that none of us will forget.”
The next month was a whirlwind. Nearly every day, the restaurant got another publicity hit. Navigating the press was easy enough for the Madrigals—Leo is a regular on local TV stations, and Yelp had warned them to expect an influx in attention. However, nothing could have prepared them for the tidal wave to come.
In the first six months, Brian recorded a 35% increase in revenue and a 100% increase in reservations on Yelp Guest Manager. The restaurant was booked every night for at least six months, and wait times soared to over two hours for a table. Tiktok creators came in unannounced to review the restaurant, and with each viral post, they generated another small wave of business. “We just reacted in the moment, trying to stay above water and do the best we could,” Brian said.
The biggest challenge was meeting customers’ expectations, he said: “When they’re told they have to wait one to two hours, it really dampens their mood. Some would wait, others wouldn’t. In any event, when your expectations are that high, I think some people just weren’t 100% satisfied with their experience.”
However, as the months passed and business leveled off, the Madrigals found a sweet spot to maintain sustainable growth. They bulked up their staff and customer service, and their regulars learned to make reservations through Yelp ahead of time.
“People in the neighborhood are excited because before, if they wanted to have dinner with their friends, they would have to drive to their friends’ communities,” Brian said. “And now we’re an actual destination, where we’re someplace they can feel proud to bring their friends and family.”
The Madrigal family legacy
Nearly one year later, the wave of new business has turned into a rising tide—and Brian hopes to bring his whole community up with him. “We owe everything to those guests who have been coming to us from day one,” he said. “It all began with our early customers, who were the first ones to give us a chance and take the time to give us feedback, whether it was on Yelp or in person, for us to be able to improve and grow.”
If I had to describe it in one word, it would be legacy. What’s most important to us is representing the state of Arizona and our Mexican culture.brian madrigal
Business may have settled for now, but Brian said the lasting impact of their win goes much deeper than revenue: “If I had to describe it in one word, it would be legacy. What’s most important to us is representing the state of Arizona and our Mexican culture—being one of those restaurants that are on top of people’s minds when they say, ‘Hey, what are some of the best restaurants in the area?’”
As part of that legacy, the family plans to donate and match the first-place $10,000 prize check from Yelp to several local organizations by the end of the year. They want to give back to the Phoenix community that has given them so much.
And there’s one more place this legacy will take them: the city of Maricopa, just outside of Phoenix, where the Madrigals plan to open a second location. The opportunity appeared when Nathan Steele, Maricopa’s director of economic development, visited Cocina Madrigal on a whim and fell in love with the wild mushroom enchiladas—so much so that he came back with friends, family, and even the mayor of Maricopa, who supported Nathan’s plan to bring Cocina Madrigal to their city.
Just like Leo back in 2016, Nathan saw a chance to meet his city’s need for high quality, family-owned restaurants. “We wanted someone for that area that we could truly say is part of the community. Cocina Madrigal checked all the boxes,” he told a local news site in 2021.
While the Madrigals are all about building close to home, their community is growing wider by the moment: Already, Maricopa residents who can’t wait for the second location to open have started driving the forty minutes to South Phoenix to share their excitement and try the enchiladas. No matter where you come from, it tastes like home.
Brian’s tips for Top 100 winners
“The Top 100 is a game changer altogether and definitely brings a lot more eyes on your business,” Brian said. Here’s what you need to know when navigating the increased publicity.
- Staff up. “I think it would’ve been a good investment for us to overstaff and have people on the floor helping and directing customers,” Brian said. “It did demand a lot of hard work and extra hours to be able to keep up with the demand and all the attention we received.”
- Set expectations. Make sure your employees are prepared to handle the influx in business, both mentally and emotionally, and provide adequate breaks and time off when it gets overwhelming.
- Enjoy it. “It really is an honor to be recognized in this way. Definitely just be appreciative and take everything that comes with it,” Brian said. To make the most of your moment, check out Yelp’s top five techniques for capitalizing on media coverage.
Photos from Cocina Madrigal
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