Marci Rosenberg and Gary Mobell [Photo: Grace Boyle]
The Blue Bonnet on South Broadway is one of Denver's longest standing restaurant. First opened in the 1930's as one of the first post-prohibition restaurants to obtain its liquor license, it was purchased in 1968 by Arlene and Philip Mobell who turned The Blue Bonnet from an American Café/Bar into the classic Mexican eatery it is today. After 45 years in the same family, the joint is now run by Arlene and Philip's son and daughter, Gary Mobell and Marci Rosenberg.
July 25th marks their 45th year in business but they still understand that competition is strong and focusing on keeping up with the new kids on the block is important for them. One of the longest standing employees is manager Lulu Briggs who has been with the Mobell family for 29 years at Blue Bonnet. When asked what has kept her around all these years, without hesitation she shared with a big smile, "the customers and we're treated really well here."
Eater sat with Gary and Marci to learn about their secrets to running a restaurant as a family for 45 years, how their menu has evolved, the ingredients that weren't on their menu 20 years ago, why the staff sticks with them for decades, and their secrets to keeping one of Denver's oldest family-run businesses alive.
Your parents bought Blue Bonnet in 1968 – what was it like growing up in a restaurant and how involved were both of you in the day-to-day operations?
Gary: When my parents first bought the Blue Bonnet in the original location, it was just to the north of us (now). This was, for them, their chance to really get ahead and move forward as a business. They were very passionate and worked very hard in this business. The restaurant has changed quite a bit. It was more of a neighborhood-type bar (back then) than an actual restaurant, but through hard work and foresight that my mother had, we added Mexican food to the operation and venue. The transition from a neighborhood bar to a restaurant was a lot of hard work. For every step forward there were lots of backwards moves as well. I started working here very young. I would bus tables, I would wash glasses, I would wash dishes – really whatever needed to be done is what I did.
Marci: In those days it was a bar with minimal food. It had pool tables and that's what it was. Then it went down a different path and more into a family place than a drinking place. I remember when I grew up they worked so hard. Our parents called it "the place" - they were always at "the place." Gary and I have a sister who is 13 years younger than us, and we sort of raised her, because my parents were always here working. They worked together, they also did work different shifts, but they both worked everyday. They were gone a lot. They put their heart and soul into this place. Everyone in their own way, rolled up the sleeves and pitched in - in whatever way possible.
It seems like it was your mother's foresight, but could you uncover more of the reasoning behind making the Blue Bonnet a Mexican restaurant?
Gary: Across the street from us was Little Shanghai and it was very busy. There was a lot of action and activity at that restaurant. With my mom's foresight and being able to assume that something needed to be done to increase activity at Blue Bonnet, Mexican food was chosen. Really, it was just, across the street was Chinese, let's do Mexican. It's crazy, you know? No business plan, just, let's try it.
With a Mexican restaurant in full swing, how come you kept the original name Blue Bonnet and are there any other components of the original restaurant that you've kept intact today?
Gary: The name Blue Bonnet was chosen from the original owners, Helen and Shorty Bolten. They had come from Texas and the Blue Bonnet is the Texas state flower. My folks never changed the name and as a result, we (Marci and I) kept the name as well. When you hear Blue Bonnet, it really doesn't remind you of Mexican food, but it's just the origins of the name. My parents were apprehensive or hesitant to change the name as it did have some notoriety to it.
Marci: We kept when we moved the old place to new place, because my mom was worried people wouldn't follow - even though it was a few steps away. So they made this place look just like the old place. They used the same colors and really everything was the same. A lot of people never realized we were in a new place, especially the bar area. We also kept the original Blue Bonnet sign, which now resides in one of our dining rooms on the wall.
On that note, why did you move locations especially since it was so close? Was it akin to a rebirth or wanting to expand space-wise?
Gary: We've been in this space 25 years and this area (South Broadway) was pretty blighted. The center was being built behind us – there is a Sam's Club and Albertsons and this area was being redeveloped. We thought it would be a good time for us to expand our business and add, for example, the patio, and have more seating and a banquet room to modernize what we were doing. The older building was not really conducive to having a patio and the kitchen was so small. I remember when we came into this restaurant the kitchen was so big we were getting lost in there!
Marci: There just wasn't room to grow at the old place – we were really bursting at the seams. This whole area of Denver is becoming more of a live – work – play place now.
This month marks 45 years you've been in business – that's impressive! As a family run restaurant, what do you think the key is to your longevity?
Marci: We stay in close contact with the customers and we walk around and check on all their tables. If things are good, we know about it and if someone is unhappy, we know about it and we fix it. We have good manners and help because you can't do this by yourself. Now it's seven days and seven nights service. We used to be closed for some of the holidays - now we're open. It's really competitive out there. With our great management staff, we call them "green lights" which means they're willing to make changes. If you have people that don't want to change, that's like a "red light". We have mostly green light people here and people are willing to try those changes. We also listen to our staff. We have a manager meeting weekly and, if people have ideas we listen, because we really don't know everything.
Gary: Passion, flexibility, and being innovative and intuitive. It's an easy recipe. It's easy in theory, hard in practicality, but I think that's what it is for us. As Marci said, everything is done as a team. It's not the vision of one person, but the vision of a team.
Do you have any other family members that have worked here over the years?
Gary: Marci's daughters, growing up, worked here. My younger sister's children growing up, they worked here as well. When they came to visit Denver they would also work here. I don't have any children, so we don't have any members from my side, but we do have some second-generation staff members here. Their parents used to work here and now they do. We have some longevity with our staff here. Many people have worked here 20+ years.
Marci: We had a bartender who worked here over 20 years and he retired and had a part-time job making the margaritas. He recently just passed away. No one retires, they sort of just do less! That's pretty amazing that a lot of your staff is here for decades.
Since Gary took over roughly 28 years ago (and Marci thereafter joined), how has it been working together as a brother and sister duo day-to-day?
Gary: It's fine, it's challenging. I would much rather work with family though. And my mom always stressed what happens in the restaurant stays in the restaurant. We don't take it out. I think that's a good philosophy to follow and is something that has helped us maintain a relationship outside of the restaurant.
Marci: We're not stepping on each others' toes either. We both found things we're good at and we're different. So we have our territory. You put together all the pieces of the pie it really is a whole and that's nice. A second-generation family business is pretty rare too, so we're blessed.
How has the food and menu evolved?
Gary: As tastes have changed, we now have fresher and lighter food items. I wouldn't say we're farm to table, but we have certainly come a long way. The chiles we used to have were canned; now we fireroast our own in the restaurant. We've added some great items to our menu like the fresh mahi-mahi ceviche, our gazpacho, our fresh street tacos and we make all our own hot sauces and margaritas from scratch. We've had a gluten-free menu now for three years as well. I worked with a company that combed through our recipes to help guide us on providing an entirely gluten-free menu. They provided insight on things I never would have thought had gluten in them, such as spices do, so their guidance was great.
Marci: We have our original menu that we have kept, but we have now a seasonal menu that is new. It's for fall-winter and spring-summer and that brings a lot more freshness. We never even served dessert before and now we have dessert and happy hour and brunch - also things we never used to have. We have lots of vegetarian items and vegan items to accommodate our guests. I think we're trying to cover a lot of bases.
Are there some upcoming changes or things we should expect to see from you in the future?
Gary: I would say keep an eye on our restaurant and to see how we're able to grow and add to our extensive [laughs] menu. We try to add new things, new margaritas, and food items all the time.
Marci: We want to make the original menu smaller. Because you grow and grow and now it's like, that's a lot on the menu. We'll have a new seasonal menu coming up and then it's exciting to see what's going to happen in this neighborhood and the development around us.
· DEALFEED Blue Bonnet - bottomless chips and salsa in July [EDen]
· Alum-owned Blue Bonnet is a Mexican food institution in Denver [University of Denver]
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