New restaurants are taking a big bite out of Colorado Springs’ dining scene.
Attracted by the area’s booming economy, steady population growth and thousands of new rooftops, national and regional chains and Denver-area concepts are flocking to the Springs.
Whether they’re quick serve, fast casual or full service, names such as In-N-Out Burger, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, LongHorn Steakhouse, Jax Fish House, Fat Sully’s Pizza, the Rib & Chop House and Chuy’s are some of the new eateries that are part of the local restaurant landscape or soon will be.
It’s not just the Springs; cities across Colorado have seen an influx of restaurants as the state’s economy has flourished since the end of the Great Recession. The Colorado Restaurant Association estimates there are 11,800 eating and drinking establishments statewide; that’s up by about 1,100 over the last five years.
“Folks are still going out to dinner, but they’ve got so many more places to choose from that they’re not going to their same places as often,” said Carolyn Livingston, a former Restaurant Association spokeswoman. “They’re spreading it out over different places.”
At a time when competition is heating up, however, three of the Springs’ oldest family-run restaurants — Señor Manuel Mexican Cuisine, Roman Villa and Luigi’s Homemade Italian Food — are staying cool.
Owners of the restaurants say they’ve seen the trend before; new eateries descend on the city and attract curious local diners. They’ve survived past waves of newcomers and expect to do so again.
The key: Hold true to what’s worked in the past and avoid trying to one-up their new rivals.
Longtime diners enjoy their food, service and ambiance just the way it is. If they make major changes, the restaurants say, they’ll risk losing customers — some of whom were kids when they ate their first meals at the restaurants and now come to eat with children of their own.
“The competition’s always in the back of your mind, and we know that,” said Mika Hernandez, co-owner with her brother, Mark, of Señor Manuel, at 4660 N. Nevada Ave. “I’m never going to be able to compete with them, so I don’t try. I just try to be good at what we do.”
Señor Manuel marks its 49th anniversary Aug. 29; it was founded in 1970 by Mika and Mark’s parents, Manuel and Lucy Hernandez, who died in 2016.
Today, Señor Manuel — where photos and portraits hang on the wall in memory of Manuel and Lucy — still specializes in made-from-scratch dishes and makes its chips and tortillas in a basement tortilla factory.
Roman Villa and Luigi’s have similar family histories.
Roman Villa, at 3005 N. Nevada Ave., opened in 1959 and celebrated its 60th anniversary Aug. 4. Founder Del Biondi died in 2000; his wife, Lina, died in 2014.
The restaurant is now run by Carla Tong, Del and Lina’s daughter, and Carla’s daughter, Amber Shaffer; it’s known for pizza, lasagna, tortellacci and other dishes served in a wood-paneled dining room that the owners describe on their website as reminiscent of an old-style Chicago eatery.
Luigi’s restaurant, at 947 S. Tejon St., opened in 1958. It’s owned and operated by husband-and-wife Gina and Les Costley. Gina’s parents, Leo and Anne Cervetti, launched Luigi’s; Leo died in 2007, while Anne is 89 and lives in Colorado Springs.
Luigi’s makes its own sauces, meatballs, Italian sausage and several of its pastas. Its dining room is decorated with 1,400 empty wine bottles whose straw-covered bottoms are often signed by diners celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other events — a tradition that began about 15 years ago.
Those are the kinds of touches that diners have come to expect and don’t want changed, even as chains and others bring new trends and concepts to town, the owners say.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to try them,” Tong said. “I hear all the time about new places. They love to try them. That’s great. But then, there is that place that you go to that’s like home.”
Though Señor Manuel, Roman Villa and Luigi’s operate independently, they share business philosophies that are remarkably similar.
Consistency is king
Repeat customers know what they want when they walk in the door. If recipes are changed or ingredients tweaked, they’ll know it — and won’t hesitate to say so.
At Señor Manuel, Mika’s brother Mark does all of the cooking, which maintains the quality of the food.
“Prior to that, it was my dad,” she said. “This is what we do. And this is how we’ve done it.”
“People know what they’re getting,” Mika added. “It’s what they want. They order their usual, repeatedly. Our customers, we have regulars who sustain us. Our clientele is very supportive, very loyal, very demanding. They keep us in line.”
At Roman Villa, Tong said, she’s never changed recipes.
“You just don’t mess with it,” Tong said. “People come here expecting to get what they got 60 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago. It’s important that you really keep that consistency.”
Food quality and consistency are “sacred,” said Costley, of Luigi’s.
“You can’t cut corners there,” she said. “We have people that faithfully come weekly for years and years and years. We try never to change anything.”
Occasionally, however, changes must be made when vendors no longer are available.
Years ago, Luigi’s bought its bread from a bakery on the city’s west side. When the bakery went out of business and the restaurant had to look elsewhere for bread, customers noticed immediately.
“And they were very upset about it,” Costley said.
Customer expectations — and aversions to change — don’t stop at the food.
Gina and Les Costley became owners of Luigi’s about 15 years ago after buying out one of Gina’s sisters and her husband with whom they shared ownership. As new owners, Costley said, they made a few upgrades to the restaurant — new windows, carpeting and chairs.
Customers began to worry that wholesale menu changes were coming, too.
“’This is just how it starts,’” Costley recalled customers saying. “’You’re going to change everything.’ And we didn’t. We didn’t change the menu. We didn’t change the food or the way we prepare it, the way we serve it.”
While they maintain their longtime recipes and food quality, the restaurants have listened to customers who have special dietary needs. Roman Villa has a handful of gluten-free menu items, for example, while Señor Manuel and Luigi’s accommodate gluten-free and vegan needs.
“We do a lot of pizza with no cheese for people who are vegan,” Costley said. “They love it. They’re happy to have that option.”
Don’t close the door
While the restaurants say they won’t mess with their menus and food, they haven’t rejected behind-the-scenes upgrades to improve how they do business.
Señor Manuel has gone to a new computer system that’s easier for servers to understand — allowing them to focus on learning the menu, Mika said.
They’ve also added the Uber Eats and Grubhub delivery services. The two services provide iPads so that restaurant employees can see food orders and call customers, if needed, to ensure they’re getting what they want.
“So we’re still retaining some of that control,” Mika said. “We don’t let all delivery services in here. We’re very picky about that. ... Our reputation is important to us. And I want my customers to know what they’re getting and to enjoy our food.”
Social media also can play a big role.
Costley said she learned of misinformation being spread via the internet — when customers Googled the restaurant’s name, they read — falsely — that Luigi’s had closed. Costley was able to take control of her restaurant’s information on Google and correct it — a significant help, she said.
Costley also began advertising on Facebook about a year ago. She spent about $150 a month to reach roughly 30,000 people and was able to target ads to reach tourists and other specific demographics. The ads created an immediate response last year and a sizable increase in restaurant business, she said.
“We’ve done every type of advertising over our 61-year career,” she said. “Newspaper, radio, television. We’ve done all that. I’ve never had the response that we’ve had to this.”
The restaurants also have Facebook pages that allow them to post customer photos, spread the word about restaurant specials and field comments and questions.
Customers are part of family
Decades of service mean plenty of regular customers, including families who’ve been coming to the restaurants for years. Getting to know them is a big part of doing business and the restaurants’ success.
“We have generations that have come in for years and year and years,” said Tong, of Roman Villa. “It’s very personal. We know what they like because they’re repeat customers. You keep that in your head — they like it this way or they like that. It’s all about having a good dining experience.”
At Señor Manuel, customers who celebrate special events often don sombreros provided by the restaurant, which posts their photos to Facebook.
“We have one family who’s in their fifth generation as a client,” Mika Hernandez said. “They come to us with their life’s highs and lows. ... We have a lot of birthdays. We have people who have been with us since 1970. We have new births. We have graduations. We’ve had deaths. These are all things that come in here, and we’re part of that. And that makes it very special for us.”
But it’s not just longtime customers who are important.
Tong said newcomers often are looking for a family-style restaurant that reminds them of a city where they grew up or from where they just moved.
“We heard about you from a friend or you remind us of a place back home that we just loved,” Tong said she’s heard from new customers. “Or, ‘I’m from Ohio and we had a great pizza place there.’ I just had a guy in last week from New York, and someone recommended you. ... When they find us, it’s kind of special.”