New chapters are a recurring theme for Chris Ornelas, General Manager and Owner of Plaza Antigua, a Mexican restaurant and now event venue in Waynesboro, Virginia. The first new chapter was moving with his family from their home in Mexico to Virginia. Chris was four years old at the time and had a front row seat to the entrepreneurial journey of his dad, uncle, and cousins as they opened restaurants in Charlottesville and Richmond. The restaurateur spirit was ignited in Chris early on. “I worked in a restaurant all my life, basically. I was helping clean tables when I was ten. I started serving when I was thirteen. It was funny, when I was managing restaurants at twenty-six years old, these older people were like, ‘You don’t know anything, you’re too young for that,'” Chris recalls.
Along the way, Chris also tried his hand at other career paths but kept returning to restaurant life. “I went into real estate, I got into building websites and whatnot but at the end, I went back to what I knew. It’s hard to work for my family, but eventually, Miguel Lopez, who was the main owner of Plaza Azteca, offered me an opportunity to come out to Waynesboro and help him open up this restaurant here. Unfortunately, Miguel passed away about three years later. Then everybody sold off their shares here so that I became the sole owner of what was then Plaza Azteca and what we renamed as Plaza Antigua,” Chris explains.
In this new chapter as a sole restaurant owner, Chris brought his own flair and ideas to the table. “When I did the name change, we changed the menus. Some of the things are personal items that I wanted to add. I also hired a chef that I met through traveling and going to other restaurants. We actually have a chef from Monterrey, Mexico, who comes over as well. I wanted to incorporate a few different things and he helped us get things to a better level,” Chris says.
As a seasoned restaurateur, Chris also has some practical advice for those interested in starting or working in the restaurant business. “One step at a time, that’s all you can do. And don’t stress out, just take everything for what it is and just try not to stress because that moment you start stressing and pulling your hair out, that’s when it all just falls apart on you,” Chris advises.
Plaza Antigua was by all accounts a success when another chapter, a worldwide pandemic this time, created sweeping devastation in the restaurant industry. Chris credits the support of the community and the loyalty of his staff to helping Plaza Antigua weather the storm of the pandemic. During this time, Chris also decided it was time to expand Plaza Antigua with a new outdoor venue, “I’ve always done live music on a small scale indoors and with my bar side patio, but I’ve always wanted to do something with that land that we had out there. I always envied the outdoor spaces when I went to the breweries. When COVID hit, I thought, ‘All right, this is the time to go ahead and put an investment out there because I have to do something to get people back to the restaurant.’ Now we have this great outdoor venue space with socially distanced seating,” Chris explains.
The outdoor venue will usher in a new chapter of live performances, events, and community gatherings. Chris also envisions the space being a friendly location for nonprofits and schools to hold fundraisers. Giving back has been a part of the culture for every restaurant Chris has been part of but found Waynesboro an especially fulfilling place to give back. “One thing I really liked about Waynesboro was when I first moved here, it felt like a small town. You know everybody on a first name basis. Right away I realized it’s a different vibe from where I was living in Richmond. I started giving back to the community and you really saw the appreciation in people. We started doing more and more throughout the years. During the pandemic when we were in a time of need, people came out and supported us. That really inspired me to do even more than I normally do,” Chris explains.
Through the triumphs and challenges, Chris and the staff at Plaza Antigua have not only continued their success but taken it to new levels. The next chapter of Plaza Antigua ushers in exciting plans for the outdoor venue, a deep commitment to the community, and serving up the delicious food we all know and love. As for the future, we can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings!