Memories on the menu

Through fires, recession and tragedy, Francisco’s is still a landmark

Francisco’s owner Claudine Garcia describes a scene in one of the murals  at the restaurant.  Artwork and antiques from the family’s travels adorn every wall, and one guidebook lists the restaurant as a gallery. Enlarge photo

Francisco’s owner Claudine Garcia describes a scene in one of the murals at the restaurant. Artwork and antiques from the family’s travels adorn every wall, and one guidebook lists the restaurant as a gallery.

The Garcia family made a promise to a place, and to each other. Commitment has sustained Francicso’s Restaurante y Cantina for 44 years in Durango.

“Many partnerships fail,” said General Manager Skip Garcia, “but most family businesses succeed, because we are not partners – we are family.”

Founders Claudine and Francis Garcia have persevered through various challenges over the years, including the Missionary Ridge Fire, the 9/11 disaster, and the recession, as well as “way too many restaurants to slice the pie,” said Skip. The business survived a personal tragedy: Former executive chef and Skip’s brother Ted Garcia was killed in July of 2010.

“Those were our toughest days,” said Skip. “We spent a lot of time consumed in overwhelming grief, and the restaurant helped keep us together – it gave us a sense of purpose.” Francis says he still feels close to his late son at Francisco’s. “On any given day, I feel like he might walk down the hall.”

The halls of the restaurant are filled with decades of memories. Skip, Francis and Claudine gathered on June 18 to explain how it all began. In 1968, the couple moved from Farmington to Durango to seek an opportunity to buy a business. Francis said he wanted to work for himself, and he wanted to bring Claudine back to her hometown.

They intended to buy a gas station, but found out it was not for sale. Instead, they ended up purchasing Joe’s Place, a cocktail lounge at 619 Main Avenue. Money was so tight that Francis had to sell his favorite mare to come up with part of the downpayment, and Claudine used the change from the bottom of her purse to put into the register as the bar re-opened on Oct. 17, 1968. Skip credits his parents’ “extremely embedded work ethic” as a big part of the restaurant’s success, especially in the early days.

“I would drive trucks during the day and be a bartender here at night,” said Francis. “It was a good thing I was 26 years old – you don’t get tired at that age.”

Francisco’s soon became one of Durango’s favorite bars, and the Garcias decided to add free, live music and dancing. Tables were cleared away and locals could dance the night away to live country music. While several well-known bands and traditional flamenco guitarists played at the restaurant, it was the house band, Roy New and the Country Squires, that were the hometown favorites. On any given night, Francisco’s was packed with locals wagering on a friendly game of pool or chatting with the pretty waitresses in their traditional ruffled dresses.

“We had Mexicans, cowboys, hippies, college students. There was some fighting in the early days,” said Claudine. “But they finally learned how to get along. Pretty soon everybody was mingling.”

Skip said many relationships have started at Francisco’s, and some of those same couples bring their children and grandchildren to the restaurant today. Claudine added that half of the old-timers in town worked at Francisco’s at one time or another.

The nightclub scene could get rowdy. “I could tell you some stories about certain well-known people in town,” Skip said. “But it was like going to Vegas: What happens in Francisco’s, stays in Francisco’s.”

The evolution from bar to restaurant happened accidentally. For New Year’s Eve one year, Claudine wanted to make the event special by bringing some food for bar patrons. She made a big pot of red chile and sopapillas. They set plywood over the pool tables to serve the food. It was an instant hit.

“People kept asking for it,” said Francis. “We hired some help and had some long hours in the early days.”

The first menu offered burritos, enchiladas, red and green chile and pizza. As the years went on, the menu kept getting bigger, and they needed more space. The Garcias purchased three additional buildings: Treasure Tunnel, a barber shop and Landis Shoe Repair. The center portion of the restaurant today is the original location before the expansions.

“We are successful in part because we own our building. If we didn’t, we couldn’t afford this now,” said Francis, who was named one of the “Top Businessmen of 1985” in the Herald’s Focus on Business section 27 years ago.

In the late ’70s, Francis said they decided to focus on the restaurant and no longer have live entertainment. “It was starting to be hard to have tables of families next to young people who wanted to party,” he said.

As the restaurant expanded, the Garcias collected eclectic artwork during their travels. The space is filled with cowboy memorabilia, Native American artwork, and colorful murals and sculptures from Mexico. “In one guidebook, it was listed as a Western gallery as well as a restaurant,” said Claudine.

Skip said people come back to Francisco’s year after year because of the food and the feeling of being at home. The Garcias are proud of having one of the most diverse and regionally authentic menus in town. There are dozens of specials that change daily and seasonally in addition to the extensive regular menu. These items range from traditional Mexican favorites to Maryland soft-shell crabs to organically-grown herbs and produce to local farm-raised beef and poultry. The Garcias have been careful to keep the authentic chile recipes that launched the menu four decades ago. Claudine said they order a variety of chiles – caribe, molido, pequin – from a man in Hatch who still grows his own and dries it the old-fashioned way: on the roofs of adobe buildings.

Claudine said Ted was an adventurous and talented chef, and the menu still reflects that. “We were able to handle the tragedy of losing him because of Skip. We’re so grateful to have him to help us and support us.”

Skip left his life in Tuscon and was on the next plane to Durango after learning of the tragedy. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “You have to fix things throughout the whole day. So many restaurants are non-chef or non-owner managed. We’ve been successful because we’re hands-on. We’ve been working here all day.”

Claudine and Francis have been married 51 years. Their two sons, and grandchildren and other relatives have all worked at Francisco’s over the years. Skip and Ted started dishwashing and bussing when they were kids, and Claudine would send them home when they would start to bicker.

Skip said they have made a family business work by having patience with each other and utilizing the strengths of each member. “When we were all younger, we were much more passionate and argued more. Now the passion and fight has faded, and we just help each other.”

Francis said the biggest challenge they face today is hiring good employees with a solid work ethic. “This is not what they want to do. It’s just a means for them to bike and ski, and float the river,” he said. But there have been some employees that have worked for 20-plus years. “Mama Bea” is the longtime head waitress, and repeat customers frequently request to be seated in her station. Evelyn Lozano and Liz Lucero worked for about 30 years. Chef Paul Fetcho is still working after 25 years.

Francis says he still enjoys the work of running a restaurant at age 70, “when a lot of people want out.” He says he is sure there will be a point where it’s time to let go. But for now, the commitment is still strong.

“We’ve raised our families here – and other people’s families,” said Claudine. “They consider this place home.”

The late Ted Garcia displays signature dishes. Enlarge photo

The late Ted Garcia displays signature dishes.

The Garcia family, from left: Ted Garcia, parents Claudine and Francis, and Skip. Enlarge photo

The Garcia family, from left: Ted Garcia, parents Claudine and Francis, and Skip.