Fajita Grande Es Tan Bueno!
Fresh Mexican food and fast, friendly service come together at Fajita Grande.
By Jessica Swan and photos by Turner Photography Studio
Much has changed locally and globally in the space of just over five years since Fajita Grande’s Hagerstown location opened its doors in the North End’s Stone House Square shopping center. Even so, General Manager Jodie Sama is intent on making sure diners at the Mexican restaurant know that each visit will have three constants: fresh and delicious food, an attentive staff, and an affordably priced menu.
Owner and Head Chef Sam Ashraf was already busy serving up his specialties at the original Fajita Grande in Frederick when the opportunity arose to purchase the space that the newer restaurant now occupies. Few authentic Mexican restaurants could be found in Hagerstown in 2015, and Sam’s passion for the cuisine, combined with the chance to bring his unique concept for the fare to a new location, resulted in a “sister restaurant” that has a slightly different menu but the same dedication to delighting customers.
The initial approach was a “fast casual” restaurant, where customers could choose the ingredients they wanted, and the meal would be made-to-order as they waited in line. After the first week, however, Sam and Jodie found that the idea lent itself to a bit of confusion, as customers would ask for a server and wait to be seated. Never ones to be discouraged, the duo simply made some quick adjustments.
“We trained our staff to be servers within a week,” Jodie remembers with a laugh.
The former order area became a bar, a wall was built to hide the food prep station, and a with just a few other building tweaks, Fajita Grande became the dine-in restaurants that customers requested and enjoy today.
When COVID-19 hit last year, it left many restaurants scrambling to evaluate how best to continue serving safely. Luckily, spur-of-the-moment changes were nothing new for Jodie, who by then had taken over the operations role at the Hagerstown location. Backed by a dedicated staff, she was able to make sure Fajita Grande fulfilled an influx of take-out orders and oversaw the successful addition of utilizing third-party apps, such as DoorDash and GrubHub, to boost sales.
“COVID has taught me to appreciate my staff even more than I already did. They show up every day when they have family and children at home that they worry about and take care of. My main priority through everything was that they remained healthy and able to make enough to cover their bills,” Jodie says.
Coming from a background of managing sizable, higher traffic restaurants, Jodie admits it has been a “learning process” but is fortunate that Fajita Grande’s calm and casual atmosphere also affords the ability to connect with both staff and customers on a more familial level. Repeat customers, many who travel from out of state, are not surprised when Jodie is able to chat with them for a few minutes and suggest new menu items based on their previous orders. When business was especially light at times last year, she devised friendly competitions and quizzes to raise morale and get to know employees beyond their work capacity.
“I want to take care of them like they’ve taken care of me,” Jodie says.
Downtime during COVID-19 also resulted in brainstorming new ideas for renovation and expansion, both in terms of menu and building. Customers already eagerly dive into the restaurant’s staples such as the namesake Fajita Burrito Grande, a “humungous” burrito with chicken or steak, rice and beans stuffed into a whopping 13” tortilla and smothered in three homemade sauces and the Twice Grilled Chimi, either BBQ or Chipotle style, that combines steak and chicken fajitas with gooey melted cheese, fragrant onions and peppers and is covered in a blend of flavorful sauces. Fajita Grande’s updated menu, however, entices diners with “beach vibes” and dishes with a “fruity and fresh” theme throughout, in the vein of Fajita Grande’s popular Baja Shrimp Tacos, featuring mango salsa and a creamy chipotle sauce or “Cancun Dreams” craft cocktail, Jodie’s spin on “going to a Cancun beach” with a refreshing mix of layers of mango, coconut, and pineapple flavors. Jodie is quick to proudly point out that both items cannot be found on any other menu in the Hagerstown area.
Cuisine with a seaside flavor almost begs to be consumed outside underneath the warm rays of the sun so, to that end, Jodie is in talks to obtain permits for the addition of a patio that would line the outside of the restaurant. Inside, she imagines an eventual “eclectic gastropub vibe” with an open kitchen and unique craft cocktails. While prominent on the West Coast, gastropubs are few and far between in the Hagerstown area and its arrival would expose consumers in the local area to not only new and unique drinks and dishes but new ways to enjoy standards such as tacos, which have varying ingredients depending on where they are served across the country.
“I don’t want customers to think they have to dress up to eat here but at the same time, I also want them to consider Fajita Grande a go-to for a date night or a nice, quiet evening with family,” Jodie says, “I consider it an atmosphere for all.”
While the fajitas are “grande,” the restaurant space is admittedly a bit limited, so Jodie’s goal is to ensure that all who enter feel welcomed and appreciated. She knows all too well that everyone’s taste is different and welcomes feedback so that she and her staff can do their best to accommodate all palates. Maintaining low prices are a high priority and to prove it, lunch menu meals start at $5.99 and daily specials include a “Ladies’ Night” on Thursday, with a separate menu of cocktails and food, each priced at $5.
Mexican food often has a reputation for being delicious yet not-so-healthy, but Jodie points out that Fajita Grande has ample choices for the health conscious or diet-restricted diners, such as the Grilled Chicken Salad with a hearty mix of veggies or Veracruz Salmon, a grilled filet with fresh mango salsa. Many dishes can be altered to become vegetarian or gluten-free as well.
Through flexibility and a passion for quality food and attentive customer service, Fajita Grande has thrived since its inception just a few years ago, earning a well-deserved place on this year’s “Hot List” of local Latin-American restaurants.
“I just want to say, ‘Thank You!’ to each and every customer,” Jodie says with sincere appreciation. “You have so many choices and it means so much that you choose to come to Fajita Grande”.