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Casa Bonita's 40 Years of Sopapillas and Cliff Divers

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Casa Bonita [Photo Courtesy: Casa Bonita]

Casa Bonita, the infamous, entertaining Mexican restaurant in Lakewood, celebrated their 40th year in business last month. From its 85-foot pink tower, to the 20-foot fountain that was shipped in pieces from Mexico, to the restaurant's enormous size, to seats for over 1,000 guests. to the Acapulco cliff divers and the 30-foot waterfall, it's safe to say that Casa Bonita is one of a kind. Featured in a South Park episode, Casa Bonita is most notably known for its quirkiness and general absurdity of the part-festival, part-Mexican restaurant, part-Disney-like environment. Eater sat with longtime general manager, Mike Mason to learn about its longevity, the unique issues Casa Bonita faces as an entertainment space and restaurant, why employee turnover is so low, some of the more famous faces it served, and more.

In March you celebrated your 40th year in business. What do you think is the key to your longevity? Our uniqueness is definitely one of the keys. Another reason our customers come back time and time again for is the experience. They enjoy what they see and they talk about it when standing in line. You will hear customers telling other people that hadn't been here before about the divers, the sopapillas and the flags – so what we've done around here over the years has become what our customers value. They bring their guests from out of town to share the experience. Those are all key. Another component is that there have been a lot of restaurants that featured entertainment and a lot of them focused on animatronic type entertainment, but the bulk of what we're doing is people entertaining and interacting with people directly which helps us stand out.

Casa Bonita's concept originated in Oklahoma City and grew to a few more expansions, but the Denver location is the only one left open. What made Denver last? It [Denver] was far by the most elaborate. The other restaurants, which I spent some time in over the course of years, such as the Oklahoma City one, was more like a cafeteria. It didn't have entertainment and it had some unique architecture but it was limited. As they moved through the different stores, they became far more elaborate and here in Denver it featured entertainment and had the variety like the magic shows, puppet shows and all the different stage acts. The variety of what we had to offer was far more than other stores and the elaborate architecture is far more detailed than any of the others stores ever were.

The sheer size and uniqueness of Casa Bonita makes it undeniably unique in design. Can you talk more about the founder, Bill Waugh and his dream and vision behind it? He went to school to be an artist. And the first thing he did out of school was start a line of dry-cleaning businesses and he ended up selling them because he didn't enjoy that. He was always fascinated by a couple things. The first was Mexican food because back then there was no Mexican food around. The second thing he was really fascinated with was a hero of his, as a creative person himself, and that was Walt Disney. In particular, he really enjoyed the pirates of the Caribbean. If you look in the restaurant now, you will see a lot of similarities there. He wanted to make something that he enjoyed himself and he was a person that knew what he wanted so he hired people to accomplish that task. That architect and designer who put it on paper and build it was Phil Phillips. His business had been building high end custom homes and he was a very capable person. So he put the concept into motion. He really wanted to create a Mexican village like a festival, with all the activities going on.

What has changed over the years? We've changed menu items and some service items like once people get their food it's full service with a wait person. We added in Casa Ritas and a bar over the years too but we have really not changed too much about the experience and entertainment because it's what people really like. It's our signature thing. We've added different shows but we've really not changed them too much. Even the dive show is remarkably the same since we opened.

You've been at Casa Bonita for 38 years. What is your first Casa Bonita memory? It was my 15th birthday and I had to wait until I was 16 years-old to start here. But it was a cool place. It just was. It still is, you can still see that. At that point I thought to myself that it would be a cool place to work. I came over, the day after my 16th birthday to interview, and got the job. I have enjoyed it a lot. And I'm not the only one who has been around here for 30 plus years. I think it's because it's a place that people come to really enjoy, therefore you enjoy it.

Can you tell us more about those employees who have been here a long time and stood the test of time? In our kitchen, we have our purchasing manager Jim Gronert-- he has been here since day one. He helped vacuum the place the day it was opened and unlocked the door when the first customer walked in. My assistant that I work with Eileen Osby has been here just shy of the time I've been here. My direct assistant, Peter Osby is approaching 28 or 29 years now. Then our "younger" people have been around 15-18 years. They're now in their mid-30's, but they've been around here that long. This place is an interesting place and along with that come with interesting challenges that you end up dealing with, so you end up with people who think outside the box. So there really are fairly creative people here. It's unbelievable the amount of people who have married people they've met working here. That's the case with me! If I think through it, I can think of close to 20 people who are couples of a result of meeting and working at Casa Bonita.

Can you share a favorite story from regulars? We're very fortunate because in our slower times of the year, the bulk majority of our customer base aren't tourists, it's local people. We have a lot of regular customers that come in week after week but some of our more famous regular customers are Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park. This is the place they grew up in. It was based on the South Park episode of Casa Bonita they did and this was the place where they came and had birthdays and celebrations as young kids. We even learned that their creative studio in California is called Casa Bonita and inside they have wait staff carrying trays, the flags on tables, and it shows they're still very fascinated by the place.

We also have customers who came as kids, and now bring their kids and we're even seeing another generation of grandkids. We're real fortunate to have those customers because in our non-seasonal months, that's our customer base.

Any famous faces you've hosted at Casa Bonita? Well, Willy Nelson, when he lived in Evergreen - he was pretty much a regular back then. We had the lady that played the maid in the Brady Brunch used to come in all the time in the 80's. More recently, The Fray had their album release party here because it was a favorite place of theirs as kids. We've also had the Rockies players come in as it's their place to come and celebrate after a win.

At 52,000 square-feet, Casa Bonita is the largest North American restaurant under one roof. How do you keep all the components from the food, to the service, to the entertainment, running smoothly? I think a lot of it has to do with the quality of the people. We have so many around here that have seen the process throughout the years. We have learned how to make it better and improve the customer experience. Now that they're so cross-trained, we can rotate those seasoned people to front or back of the house. I think a lot of it has to do with people that have been around so long so they know what they're doing. That's just a nice thing to have. We don't have a huge turn over in our management staff or kitchen area. We even have servers that have been with us for 25 years. People tend to stay around because they work in an environment where people want to know things about them and they become part of that group.

As general manager, what is your management philosophy that you like to abide by? It harkens back to the beginning days. It's important to have people around you that have bought into what the concept is about and understand the heritage and history of the concept. That's one major thing that has been beneficial to us. There's a tie to knowing Bill Waugh and who the first general manager was. You still know these people, and in my case, being a 15-year-old talking about service standards and expectations and how we execute the job around here. I think having an understanding from the beginning and staying true to the original concept is a big thing. I think people come here and believe they're part of something significant. On a Saturday night we might serve 5,000 guests - that's just a normal weekend. They were part of something that doesn't happen a lot anywhere else, and to have an operation that successfully does numbers like that year after year is unique.

Casa Bonita is located at 6715 West Colfax Avenue and is open seven days a week starting at 11 a.m.

· All Casa Bonita Coverage [EDen]
· Zimmern on Denver's Mongolian, Mexican, and More [EDen]
· Iconic Casa Bonita celebrates 40 years in Denver; world-renowned restaurant opened March 27, 1974 [7News]

Casa Bonita

6715 W. Colfax Avenue, Denver, CO

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