50 years of food and fun for Monroe’s

Kathy and Miguel Diaz, pictured here outside Monroe's at 1520 Lomas NW, have run Monroe's restaurant for 36 years. It celebrates 50 years in business this year. (Richard Pipes/Journal)

You’d think Monroe’s would be named for the Diazes.

Kathy and Miguel Diaz have been running the New Mexico restaurants for 36 years — and run them as if customers and employees are part of their family.

Or you’d think it would be named at least named for Miguel, who purchased Monroe’s in 1976 from Monroe Sorenson, who started the restaurant at Rio Grande and Mountain in 1962.

But Miguel, who grew up in Puerto Rico and came to New Mexico from New York, said he kept the name after he bought it because of community recognition. “It was known in the neighborhood so we kept that name,” he said.

That recognition and following has continued for 50 years, as the restaurant celebrates that milestone in 2012.

“It really has been a wonderful experience,” Kathy told the Journal during an interview at the Downtown location. “It really is Miguel’s personality. That’s what it’s all about.”

How they met

Kathy Higginbotham, who grew up in Ohio, came from Tennessee to New Mexico in 1977 to attend graduate school at the University of New Mexico and her friends wanted to introduce her to New Mexican food.

Sitting at a table at Monroe’s, Miguel approached her and asked her if she wouldn’t mind working the cash register.

“If any guy is offering you the cash register and to cook for you, it can’t be bad,” she said. “We’ve been together ever since.”

The pair married in 1980 at the courthouse in Albuquerque. (Kathy has Ph.D. in special education and neuropsychology, by the way).

“The judge did the wedding for a green chile cheeseburger,” said a smiling Miguel.

Kathy said the judge just teased the pair about having a burger for him.

And right after the ceremony, the two returned to Monroe’s and Miguel cooked while Kathy served.

“It was between the lunch and supper rush,” she said. “We had to hurry and get back.”

On the restaurant celebrating 50 years, Kathy said, “the years, they just seemed to fly by.”

“We were having fun,” Miguel said.

The original Monroe’s location moved to its current Lomas site — a converted gas station — after Sorenson was asked to move to make room for a Sheraton hotel to go on that corner.

Sorenson decided to retire a year later and sold the eatery to Miguel, who at the time ran a snack bar in a bank building at Menaul and Louisiana.

Outside bathrooms

When Miguel took over the location at 1520 Lomas NW, it was a single room and had only hamburgers, enchiladas and burritos on the menu. Because the building was a former gas station, customers had to go outside to get to the restrooms.

“It had 13 tables and 10 seats at the bar. It was a remodeled gas station for God sakes,” Kathy said, adding that the outside bathrooms became a joke on unsuspecting visitors whose friends would bring them to try Monroe’s and fill them up on tea and coffee.

An exterior wall was added in the early ’80s as part of an addition to the restaurant that brought the bathrooms inside and added space for another eight tables. It now seats about 96.

Another location on Osuna east of San Mateo was built in 1985 and customers became the landlords of the building in the beginning. A partnership of 20 customers owned the location at 6051 Osuna NE until five years ago when the Diazes bought out the partnership.

“It was a unique way to expand,” Kathy said.

Fun and family

The eatery has always been about family and having fun, the Diazes said.

“If you can’t have fun while you work, you can’t work here,” Miguel said.

Monroe’s began with seven employees and now has 70.

“Everybody is responsible for the whole place,” Kathy said. “There is no work station. Everybody here works to make the customer happy and create a comfortable be-at-home atmosphere.”

All employees get vacation time and health insurance. Monroe’s has been providing health insurance to employees since 1980, something virtually “unheard of in the restaurant business,” Kathy said.

Kathy also is the administrator of the Food Industry Self Insurance Fund, a program of the New Mexico Restaurant Association and the New Mexico Grocers Association.

“We are serving the third generation of (customer) families now. Now we have children of employees working here,” she said.

Their son Matt is co-general manager and one of five Monroe’s managers and the “rest of them are like our adopted kids too,” Kathy said. All managers own a piece of the business.

“One employee who has been here 17 years, she calls me her dad … I got so many grandkids now. We got so many grandkids here,” Miguel said.

Customers are family too

Monroe’s staff also thinks of customers as family and has seen many families grow up there. Over the years, they’ve had several moms visit Monroe’s after giving birth because they couldn’t indulge in chile while they were pregnant. Monroe’s has been the site for many christening parties, wedding parties and funeral wakes.

“People feel at home. That’s what it’s all about,” Kathy said. “Employees come in on their day off and eat. It’s where their friends and family are. It’s where they feel comfortable (and) not because they get free food. They have to pay. It’s just the way we are.”

Josh Stuyvesant, who has worked at Monroe’s for seven years, said customers are his favorite part of the job. “It’s fun. The whole job is fun. It’s too fun to be called a job,” he said.

Stuyvesant, a server, also writes the witty signs on the marquee outside of Monroe’s on Osuna along with Sean Montaño, co-general manager, and Matt Diaz.

The Osuna marquee

Written every Friday, one side highlights menu items while the other side offers some clever or funny take on politics or a hot issue and relates it back to Monroe’s.

“Even on my days off I think about the sign,” Stuyvesant said. “I get too cutesy. (Matt) tends to go more political.”

Messages like “HEY CONGRESS RED & GREEN WORK WELL TOGETHER WHY CAN’T YOU?” or “FREE GAS WITH PURCHASE OF BEANS” are meant to get people in the door and advertise the atmosphere of the eatery. One recent sign could be read only in the rear view mirror of a driver’s car.

“It shouts we’re cool. We don’t button our top button,” Stuyvesant said. “We’re just goofy.”

And since it’s election season, expect there to be more “election” stuff going up on the marquee, Montaño said.

“I’m already thinking Romney and hominy,” Stuyvesant said.

There will also be a message soon about the 50th anniversary on the sign, which has been at the Osuna location since it opened in 1985.

The three who put it together have free rein to do what they want with it, Kathy said.

The Diazes support being able to express opinions freely.

Speaking out

There was a point in the late ’80s when the Diazes purchased another restaurant — with a different name — but it drained their resources and they ended up falling behind on taxes.

Although they self-reported the issue, “it was a very difficult time dealing with the IRS,” Kathy said.

It was an unpleasant experience Kathy shared during a public forum about government regulation that was covered by the Albuquerque Journal.

“Once that appeared in the newspaper we got so many phone calls from business owners saying ‘we’ve been suffering from that’,” she said. “We’ve got to stand up for individual liberties.”

The couple eventually straightened out the taxes and began growing the business again.

The Diazes said a third location will come eventually and the company’s catering services and bottled chile products have been — and continue to be — successful ventures.

“We struggled for years to get out from that (back tax problem) in an honorable way and we did,” Kathy said. “It taught us who our friends are.”

For more, visit www.monroeschile.com.

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