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The Corral serves community 60 years (Video)

By Sonny Long
Dec. 11, 2012 at 6:11 a.m.
Updated Dec. 12, 2012 at 6:12 a.m.

Albert Totah sits in his favorite place in The Corral, the restaurant that he has been with the last 60 years. He said the waiting bench by the door is his favorite place to be because he likes to interact with his customers as they walk in.

THE SIGN

• Part of The Corral's history - and it's popularity - centers around the outside neon sign of an Indian shooting an arrow toward the building."It wasn't supposed to be an Indian," Totah said. "I wanted a cowboy on the sign, a calf on the building and a spiral rope showing the cowboy roping the calf. They said they couldn't do the spiral rope in neon."Totah said the Indian shooting the arrow was offered as an alternative and he went with it. It was 1956.

• "We were still considered out in the country at that time," Totah said. "When we put up the sign we saw an immediate increase in business."

• Cassandra Garcia, Totah's daughter, remembers customers being concerned about the sign after storms."We had a hail storm in the 70s and had to take the sign down for awhile for repairs," she said. "People were calling and asking, 'Where's the Indian?' After a hurricane one time they called and wanted to know if the Indian was OK. They cared more about the Indian than anything else."

Albert Totah was born to be a restaurateur.

Totah, who has owned The Corral since Dec. 12, 1952, got his first restaurant experience years earlier.

In the late 1930s, his parents opened the Texaco Inn, a cafe and drive-in on the corner of Main and Rio Grande streets in Victoria.

When Totah was attending high school at Patti Welder he used to walk, then later bicycle, to his parents' restaurant to work the lunch rush.

"It was the first restaurant on the boulevard," said Totah, 84. "That's where I flipped my first hamburger."

Totah graduated from high school in 1946 and after three years at the University of Texas in Austin, went into business with two cousins.

Totah's Fine Foods was located where H-E-B is now on Rio Grande Street.

Then the Army came calling and Totah was drafted into the infantry and headed to Korea.

"When they came up short of mess hall personnel, they saw I had food service experience," he said. "It didn't take me long to become a mess sergeant."

It was in the Army, too, that Totah got his first catering experience.

"We had a battalion mess a few miles behind the front lines. We'd prepare the food and take it to the front," he said. "Sometimes we'd have to hit the ditches when the mortar shells started coming in."

Totah sold his interest in Totah's Fine Foods while in the Army and when he came back to Victoria in December 1952, became a partner in The Corral at 3502 Houston Highway that had opened in February.

In 1953, the Rochester, N.Y. native bought out his partner and became the sole proprietor of the restaurant along with his wife Gwendolyn Totah.



Young love, lifetime love

Albert and Gwen met when she was 16 and a student at Nazareth Academy.

He was a 19-year-old student at UT.

"I proposed six weeks later," he said. "I knew she was the one."

The engagement lasted three years, the marriage more than 60.

"She was right here with me through thick and thin," he said. "But the last three years she had been ill.

"This has been a difficult time for me," he said. "She had kidney failure and was in and out of hospitals."

Gwendolyn Totah died in February.

But the Totah family tradition is continuing.

One of the couple's three children, daughter Cassandra Garcia, works in the restaurant with her father.

"I've worked here since high school, kind of like he started out," Garcia said. "He's a great guy. And this place has so much history."



Community involvement

Part of Totah's history includes delivering the Victoria Advocate for a while during his high school years, and he has long been involved in community affairs.

He has been active in the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, the city's building and standards commission, the health department board of directors and was on the Housing Authority board for 17 years, including five as chairman.

Totah was also instrumental in founding a regional chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association. He was among those who helped push legislation to approve liquor by the drink in 1971.

Totah was named to the TRA hall of honor in 1989. Ten years later, he was honored with Albert Totah Day in Victoria.



Consistency

The Corral has undergone some physical changes over the years.

The restaurant was remodeled in 1963 to emphasize the coffee shop interior. Curb service was discontinued in 1974 and replaced with a take out window.

Other changes took place, too, over time.

When Totah first took over the restaurant in 1952, it opened at 5:30 a.m. and made homemade donuts that sold for a nickel. A 1965 menu shows an 8-ounce top sirloin steak selling for $1.95.

But Totah said consistency has been a key to staying in business 60 years.

"We've always tried to serve a quality product, give the best service we can. And it's been consistent," he said.

It's that quality and consistency that keeps bringing customers back, even under extenuating circumstances.

About 40 years ago, a young man and his new bride left their wedding reception at the Victoria Country Club.

The couple was in a chauffeured limousine headed to the airport in Houston en route to a European honeymoon.

But a stop in Victoria was essential before their trek could continue.

"We had to have a Corral special," said longtime Victoria businessman Buddy Kamin, the newlywed at the time. "We got a chopped sandwich, fries, cole slaw and beans. We had to have that Corral fix before we left."

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