Mojo Grill & Catering owner Rondo Fernandez opens up about redemption and redirection under his newfound faith in Christ
By: John Sotomayor
Upon arrival to any of the three Mojo Grill & Catering restaurants around town, it is evident music had a big impact on the owner, Ron “Rondo” Fernandez. Particularly New Orleans jazz and blues. Memorabilia decorate the entire venue, complete with life-size replicas of Elvis and the infamous Blues Brothers and an upside-down drum set hanging from the ceiling.
The impact of New Orleans is evident on the menu, as is his Cuban-American heritage. The menu is peppered with delicious Louisiana and Cuban cuisine such as Chicken & Sausage Gumbo (a Louisiana favorite), Louisiana Crawfish Boil (crawfish simmered and spicy), Mahi Louisiana (Blackened Mahi topped with shrimp, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes in Cajun Alfredo sauce over pasta), the Crazy Cuban sandwich (considered the best in town) and Rondo’s Famous Cuban Pork Dinner, “The Pepin,” Rondo’s famous tender pulled pork marinated in his secret Mojo sauce, topped with sautéed onions and served with black beans and rice and sweet plantains.
Other menu items pay homage to jazz and blues with musical names such as the Bongo Burger, the Soprano Burger, the Rhythm and Blue Burger, blackened and topped with melted blue cheese, and the Louie Louie Cheese Burger, named after Rondo’s brother while also an homage to the classic American rhythm and blues song written by Richard Perry in 1955 that became a 1963 hit by The Kingsmen.
What is less evident, unless you know of Rondo’s countless good deeds, particularly for the less fortunate, is Rondo’s reform due to religion. Like his idols, Elvis and John Belushi of The Blues Brothers, Rondo was a bit of a rebel. Unlike his idols, Rondo did not succumb to the same fate. He gives all glory to God for turning him from the rocky road of rebellion toward a path of redemption. He shares his story candidly and his service freely, a combination that often turns around the lives of countless others.
Rondo’s parents immigrated from Cuba. He was raised in Miami until 1990. He arrived at a place in the Ocala National Forest called the Big Scrub, which he readily admits was a major culture shock.
He attended Lake Weir High School but didn’t graduate. He spent his entire life in the restaurant business. His mother was always in the restaurant business. Instead of hiring a babysitter, she would take Rondo to work with her.
“She would leave me in the dry storage closet, and I’d come out and start busing people’s tables with table visits at 5 or 6 years old,” Rondo remembered fondly. “That’s how I started and developed a passion for it. I love the interaction with people and that every day is different.”
Rondo loves working indoors, working with his hands and with food. “I knew this was what I wanted to do, and it is the only thing I know how to do, really,” he said.
The recipes are experience recipes: the combination of all of his experience from the different restaurants that he worked at and things he loves.
Rondo’s was his first restaurant as an entrepreneur, directly after a serving job. He opened it in 2005 on State Road 40. The second location opened in 2007 across State Road 200 from the Paddock Mall. He added catering. The two restaurants had the same modern Blues theme Mojo Grill has now. Rondo’s was very successful.
“Then I lost both restaurants,” Rondo said. Reckless living caught up with him.
“Anyone can Google search it,” Rondo said matter-of-factly. “It is pretty much public information. I allowed a certain culture in my restaurants, I lost focus on what was important, so it turned more into a bar than a restaurant. But I learned from that mistake. It was a turning point for me.”
That moment, which he described as “rock bottom,” helped Rondo realize that was not who he wanted to be and bring his life around. He was even let go as coach of his son’s football league. “That knocked me down to my knees,” Rondo said. His mistake led to his ministry.
Having thought he lost everything, he turned to what really was important to him, which was his family. He admits he did not have faith at that time: “I was not a Christian at the time.”
He realized he needed to get his life together for the sake of his five family members: his wife, Toby, and four kids, Ronnie, Amber, Cane, and Soriana. He went back to serving tables, which he described as a “very humbling experience.” He went back to catering, of which nine out of 10 were done for free.
In 2009, a friend who believed in him lent Rondo enough money to open Mojo Grill. Rondo recalls that ironically, this friend was the kind of person who detracted him from a belief in God. He described this friend as a “God fearing man” who maintained his faith despite losing a son to an accident. Rondo could not comprehend how a loving God could take the son of a faithful, devoted Christian.
Rondo seized the opportunity and worked hard, committed to not repeating the same mistakes. In 2013, he and a manager were arguing about faith and Christianity. The manager told Rondo he believed in God “just in case.” If he was right, then he would be in heaven seated by God. If he was wrong, then at least he lived a good life. That was good enough to Rondo at the time, so he began a superficial relationship with God – just in case.
Rondo’s greatest eye-opener was becoming reacquainted with a former friend. Together, the two once frequently partied to the extreme. According to Rondo, the friend went “off the deep end,” so much so that Rondo had mourned him as if he was actually gone. When Rondo saw him again, the friend was remarkably different. He had a “glow about him.”
He looked great and his family life was secure. Rondo asked him what he was doing now. The friend replied he was now the pastor of a church. “There was no way this guy was the pastor of a church,” Rondo laughingly recalled. Rondo mocked him a bit, until tragedy struck the Fernandez family. This friend was the one who was at Rondo’s side through it all. “He didn’t share the gospel with me,” Rondo said, “but I could see the promise and the peace that he had.”
Rondo began attending that friend’s church. Rondo began to notice the effect on his kids. They were no longer fighting in the back seat of the car. They were opening up doors for people. They were listening to Rondo and Toby. “Our Sundays were just – better,” he said.
Maybe it was simply because they spent the day as a family, or maybe it was because Rondo did not wake up hung over, knowing he had to be at church service. Maybe it was a combination of both. Maybe it was more.
“I didn’t believe in Christ yet,” Rondo recalled, “but I began to open my heart.”
Rondo began living his life by the credo: What Would Jesus Do?
Under any circumstance, Rondo would ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” For eight months, Rondo lived a life as a Christian. Up to that point, thought he had already ruined his life. He thought he would turn it around for his wife and kids so that their quality of life would improve.
He had no idea what God really had planned for him.
He thought he had done enough, having earned enough “Christian points” to go out with his friends and, as he called it, “blow the carbon out – so to speak.”
That Sunday, Rondo and his friends got hammered. When he returned home, his 10-year-old son, who had never seen Rondo drunk before, asked him what was wrong. The next morning, Rondo awoke feeling ashamed. His former self would have felt he earned it. He did not feel that way anymore.
He attended church that day, and approached the altar – an action he had never taken before. At 39 years old, Rondo knelt at the altar and asked God to show him how to be a man. “That was when I gave my heart to God.”
“My life is not perfect by any means, but I know that He is perfect, and he has a perfect plan for me,” Rondo said with absolution in his voice.
So it began.
Mojo Grill 2.0
Rondo affirms that his restaurant family has always been community-oriented, even before he became a Christian. However, their commitment reached an entirely higher level once God entered their lives.
“Our service work reached ‘2.0’ status,” Rondo joked.
“I was no longer just operating a restaurant,” Rondo said. “I was operating something that could potentially be a huge blessing to others.” To him, it was no longer about the restaurant. It was about providing for people, whether by providing a place where people go to forget about their problems or providing much of their blessings to touch others. The more they did so, the more the community rallied around them.
Often, like on the day of our interview, there were stacks of donations. “My office is full of feminine hygiene products and other sundry items to be dispersed to those who need them,” Rondo said.
Their charity has had an unexpected ripple effect. People who have never considered attending church were suddenly drawn to it. Rondo’s redemption became a revelation for others to emulate, much like Rondo did when his friend with a past turned up as a pastor.
It was important to Rondo to reach out to those who felt the most abandoned by God, so were the most at risk. Rondo credits their hands-on, everyday man approach of their work as the key difference from more structured church programs’ efforts.
“People relate to us,” Rondo said. Those who turn their lives around repeat the action. “When others ask them ‘Why are you helping me?’ they share what God has done for them.”
One of Rondo’s driving verses is Luke 12:48, which states, “For those who have been given much, much is to be expected.”
To Rondo, this means that God expects Rondo to do more with than just feed people with the restaurant he has given him.
Rondo has the scripture tattooed on his leg as a reminder.
“The Bible calls us to provide for others,” Rondo said. “That is what we aim to do at Mojo Grill: to become a beacon of hope. I am very transparent with my story, because I know there are countless thousands of others who have gone or will undergo those same battles I have with drugs and/or alcohol. I want to let others know they can empower themselves to change.”
Rondo is currently active with youth ministry. He wants young people to know that they do not have to become an alcoholic just because their father was an alcoholic or become a drug addict because they grew up in a drug-infested neighborhood or household.
“Family cycles can be broken,” Rondo said. “We are involved in many good projects in this community to help create that change.”
By his own admission, there is not a single youth ministry program in Marion County he and Mojo Grill are not involved in. “If there is,” Rondo clarified, “then I haven’t heard about it – yet.”
That determination defines him. He and his restaurant are no longer called to feed people’s bodies. Rondo and Mojo Grill are called to feed their souls.
Feed the Need
Among the top ministries Rondo is currently heavily involved in is Feed the Need, a Christian restaurant-based council he founded. There are 5,000 homeless school-aged kids in Marion County. “That keeps me up at night,” Rondo said. “I want to accomplish two goals with Feed the Need: raise awareness of the coalition of restaurants engaged in the battle to reduce those numbers, so that we rally around one another, and provide the services needed for successful fundraisers and dramatically reduce youth homelessness.”
Rondo’s Round Up
Other top ministries supported by Rondo and Mojo Grill include:
Interfaith Emergency Services “Feed the Kids” Backpack Program – over $13,000 in personal checks toward the program
Homeless Youth Council of the Marion County School Board System
Sports scholarships for underprivileged youth
Breakfast Bible Study at Mojo Grill 200 LLC
Every second and fourth Wednesday of the month Mojo Grill 200 LLC, located at 2015 SW 17th St. in Ocala, holds a free community-based breakfast Bible Study from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.
The Mojo Grill 200 LLC Ocala
2015 SW 17th St, Ocala, FL 34471
The Mojo Grill & Catering Co. of East Ocala
4620 E Silver Springs Blvd, Ocala, FL 34470
The Mojo Grill & Catering Co. of Belleview
4496 SE 100th St, Belleview, FL 34420
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