Cooking for family

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By Amanda Skotchdopole

“I like to think of my customers first,” is a statement that often comes out of business owner’s mouths, yet few actually practice it. Raising prices, competition, and a high employee turnover are common in the restaurant world. What happened to focusing on the food?

Helen Rivera, the owner of El Sombrero Restaurant practices good customer service faithfully, and has the high customer return rate to prove it. With few price changes over the past 11 years, a simple, filling menu, and almost all staff working at the restaurant for over 3 years, Rivera said, “I figure, I’m not going to get rich anyway. It keeps us working and it keeps us happy.”

Rivera has a history in the restaurant business. She began cooking and washing dishes in Mora when she was 12 at John’s Caf, and lived in Denver for 19 years where she continued waitressing.

She’s worked at El Sombrero for 22 years, and owned it since 1996. It truly is a family affair with Rivera’s husband working as a cook there for 15 years and her two sons and daughter dishwashing, cooking and waiting tables.

On staff, Rivera stated, “These guys have it made. I never tell them ‘you HAVE to do this,’ I say, ‘Let’s do this.’ We’re like a team, and if one person’s gone, we all pitch in and help.”

Before the property (located on 8th and Mills) was known as El Sombrero, it was Johnny’s Mexican Kitchen and a small store.

When the Rivera family purchased the property the sunroom and main dining room were added on.

The walls are regionally decorated with prints of matadors, ceramic mariachis, southwest style vases, and, of course, sombreros.

Tradition is what keeps many businesses open, and it’s no different at El Sombrero. Rivera said, “I have customers that come twice daily, and not seeing them is like not seeing your family. I’ve been on doctor’s orders to not work as much, and I miss my regulars. Customers like things to stay the same, and I like that too. The menu’s not broken, why fix it?”

Another tradition is the free Thanksgiving Day meal offered by the family. Anyone can drop in on Thanksgiving and enjoy a free meal. Rivera said, “When I got a divorce years ago, I didn’t want to cook for just myself and my kids. I thought it would be great to have a big Thanksgiving, and give a big one to everyone who was away from or didn’t have any family. We’ve done it every year since 1996 and it’s been like celebrating with a big, big family every year.”

Customers lean toward the tacos and burritos, yet Rivera thinks the best dish is a simple bowl of beans with red chile. The prices are affordable, the atmosphere is relaxed, and a customer is treated like family.