The owner of a popular Mexican restaurant chain has turned a medical challenge into a passion for helping others
It was Aug. 15, 2016 when Rocco Mangel woke up and realized he couldn’t move the left side of his body. Three hours later, he regained movement in his limbs and immediately researched what could have happened. Doctors at Cleveland Clinic later diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis.
MS is a disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the protective layer over nerves, leading to miscommunication between the brain and the body. Depending on the level of nerve damage, those with MS can lose their ability to walk.
“I spoke to my PR team and said, ‘I’m going to let everybody know that I have MS, and raise awareness,’” Mangel recalls.
Since his diagnosis, he’s used his platform as a successful business owner to get people talking about the disease and raising funds for research and patient programs.
Mangel’s first name is synonymous with the Rocco’s Tacos family of restaurants, with eight locations in Florida and New York with more to come.
“We’re an authentic casual Mexican restaurant—we’re not trying to reinvent Mexican food,” Mangel says.
Mangel grew up in the restaurant industry—his grandfather was a maître d’ at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, his father owned a number of restaurants on Long Island, and Mangel worked for his father at delis and pizzerias around town.
However, he was getting into trouble and needed a new start. In 1997, with $200 and a Mobil gas card in his wallet, he drove to Florida and was hired as a busboy at Big City Tavern on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. Over the next decade, he moved up in the South Florida food world, eventually teaming up with Big Time Restaurant Group—the owners of Big City Tavern—to open a new restaurant called Rocco’s Tacos as the general manager and co-owner in December 2007.
“Anybody can open up a restaurant; it’s always busy on the first night,” Mangel says. “It wasn’t until after the restaurant was super well received that I was like, ‘Oh my god, I got something on my hands here. This is a big tiger, I better grab it by the tail.’”
In 2009, Mangel realized that he couldn’t smell—he had severed his olfactory nerve. His ENT doctor ordered an MRI to take a closer look and saw signs of MS, but tests came back inconclusive. Every two years, Mangel would go back for MRIs to check for lesions, a sign that would indicate MS. Then in 2016, he was diagnosed with the disease. He manages his condition with a strict diet, and once a month he receives a transfusion to help slow its progression.
“Everybody in life has a decision they can make. You can either stay silent about what you have—and that’s good, some people decide they’re going to do that,” he says. “[Or] maybe possibly you do what I did and put your first foot forward not only in your life but in somebody else’s.”
His first goal was to raise $365,000 in 365 days—instead, he raised $500,000 for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Earlier this year he received the Hope Award, the highest honor for volunteers to the society. But his philanthropic spirit didn’t begin with his diagnosis—he has raised $250,000 for breast cancer research and has also volunteered for the ALS Association, the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, Toys for Tots, Tri-County Humane Society, March of Dimes and more.
“Now that I’m a public figure, if I give up, what message does that show?” Mangel says. “And most importantly, I’ve got a 5-year-old little girl that looks at me like I’m her knight in shining armor.”