HAINES CITY – When Zai Hernandez discovered the just-vacated location, it was what he’d been dreaming of for years.

At least five times the size of his family’s then-restaurant, the new property was on the busiest road in the county — but still in the town that had embraced them.

And, thought Hernandez, “It has a bar.”

The relocation of La Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant was accomplished almost a year ago to that dream site, but a growing and changing family combined with the busy nature of their continued success postponed a grand opening event again and again.

Finally, a true La Fiesta-style grand opening celebration was held on Sept. 28 — complete with Mexican music performed by a mariachi band and, of course, authentic Mexican food.

“We had a great turn out with friends and family, city officials and chamber members,” Hernandez said.

Thirteen years ago, La Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant opened in a quaint downtown Haines City storefront.

Hernandez discovered the location during a grocery trip after seeing the for rent sign in the window. Freshly-repaired and cleaned up after the three 2004 hurricanes, Hernandez immediately fell in love with the charming space. After a family meeting and a visit to the property, Hernandez, his wife, Mirella Pineda, and his brother, Ivan Hernandez, were in business.

When that location opened, the three of them were supplemented by only a dishwasher and waitress. From the first day, the restaurant was a favorite among locals and visitors to town.

Still, over the years, the trio dreamed of a larger building to serve more people and a bar.

Hernandez’s love of serving people good food began during his time as a dishwasher in a Chicago restaurant. He said as he worked his way through every position at the Italian eatery, he came to love the restaurant business.

“I didn’t like tomatoes when I started working there, but I grew to love them,” he said of the vegetable commonly used in most Italian dishes.

When the opportunity to relocate to Florida was presented, Hernandez and his new bride moved to Poinciana.

“My boss said ‘no, no, no’ — but we were on our way to Florida in less than two weeks,” Hernandez said.

Opening the original location was a dream come true for the family.

“It had always been mine and my husband’s dream to open our own restaurant,” Mirella said. “We have always been in the restaurant industry. We love interacting with our customers.”

Last November, they opened the new location on a Tuesday — only two days after closing the doors for the last time at the downtown site.

The success of the restaurant has continued from the downtown location. In addition to having an extensive, authentic menu, Mirella refuses to allow anyone to leave unhappy.

“I take a lot of pride in what we do,” she said. “To me, everyone that comes into my business is like as if they were coming to eat in my home.”

Her strategy must be working, because La Fiesta has well over four stars from nearly 800 Google reviewers.

The trio has come a long way in 13 years of business.

They currently have 20 or so employees and their two daughters help out when they can. Emily, 21, and Kaylee, 17, were only babies when La Fiesta Mexicana first opened. And, like then, they have a baby, six-month-old Saide, to have around in the restaurant.

La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant is now located at 94 Maxcy Circle in Haines City.

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