ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of New Mexico’s most famous restaurant operations is on the rise again.
The new owners of the Garduño’s Mexican restaurant chain are pursuing a significant expansion plan that could mean as many as four new locations around New Mexico.
The owners — who bought Garduño’s during a 2011 Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation — are hailing it as the “rebirth” of a venerable brand that nearly crumbled amid financial turmoil just a few years ago.
“It’s a fairly dramatic story for Garduño’s. It was a dramatic fall, without a doubt, and it’s going to be an explosive rebirth,” said Jim Long, a partner in Southwest Brands, which owns Garduño’s. “It’s going to come back almost as fast as it fell.”
The first new Garduño’s opened this summer at Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces. Owners expect two more — in Hotel Albuquerque and in The Lodge at Santa Fe — to be operating by April. They also hope to put a Garduño’s in Taos, though the site is still being determined.
With the exception of Taos, the new Garduño’s locations are replacing existing eateries inside hotels operated by Heritage Hotels & Resorts, Inc. Long, the CEO of Heritage, said dovetailing the operations was part of the grand plan when he and his Southwest Brands business partners Tug Herig and Jack Harney acquired Garduño’s last year.
Their $1.75 million purchase included two stand-alone Albuquerque Garduño’s (Winrock and Cottonwood) and their liquor licenses, the chain’s recipes and logos, plus license agreements for the Palms and Station casinos in Las Vegas, Nev.
“What we saw was an extraordinary opportunity to preserve and build something on top of what the Garduño family had accomplished,” Long said. “We saw the presence of an extraordinary operation that just needed to be refreshed and it needed a new infusion of capital and leadership and, with that, we felt the brand would blossom again.”
Garduño’s was founded by Dave Garduño and has roots going back more than 40 years. It grew into one of the most recognizable brands in New Mexico before financial problems resulted in a 2010 bankruptcy filing and the closure of several locations.
The new owners are working to restore Garduño’s to its former glory and are making the new Hotel Albuquerque location their biggest project so far.
Designed by Kris Lajeskie, the new restaurant will seat approximately 450. Half will be indoors (replacing Cafe Plazuela and Cristobal’s) and the rest situated in an outdoor lounge and an elaborate garden/courtyard setting.
Patio’s Italian inspiration
Long cites the famed gardens at Villa Gamberaia — a 17th century villa near Florence, Italy — as the inspiration.
“This is such a remarkable place that you never forget it,” said Long, who visited the villa frequently during the year he spent living in Italy with his family. “It’s always in your subconscious mind. It’s one of the most exquisite places in the world, and it was my desire to some day create an environment that would have that magic, and this was the perfect opportunity.”
Crews will transform what is now the north lawn at Hotel Albuquerque into a verdant landscape of columnar trees and evergreen plants such as Big Blue lilyturf and English ivy. The garden, designed by Mimi Burns of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, will surround a centralized fountain.
Diners can eat in the open or at a series of more private, covered tables.
Construction is set to begin in January.
Long — who said he expects it to become “the most extraordinary outdoor dining space in all of New Mexico” — would not say exactly how much it will cost.
“Suffice it to say, it’s a significant cost,” he said.
Good initial response
The chain’s overall health appears to be good at the moment.
Herig, who serves as president of Southwest Brands and has overseen the restaurant operations, did not give specific numbers but said business has been increasing at the existing Winrock and Cottonwood locations.
“Our top line has gone up as well as the number of new customers we’ve been seeing come in through the doors who have been pleasantly surprised that Garduño’s is still open,” he said.
Southwest Brands has made several changes since taking over Garduño’s, he said. That includes returning to some of the chain’s original recipes, cooking fresh on site rather than relying on a commissary and trying to restore some of the traditional charm to the restaurants. At Winrock, for example, that means the restaurant’s old tortilla-making machine is back on display and working as part of a new appetizer-prep station in the bar.
“We found a way to make sure we bring those memories back,” Herig said.
The Las Cruces location — which opened over the summer — has proven successful already, with Long estimating revenue is up 75 percent over the hotel’s previous restaurant.
He expects Hotel Albuquerque business to triple when Garduño’s opens in the spring.
While expansion is focused primarily in New Mexico right now, Long said the owners are also thinking beyond state lines. That includes greatly increasing Garduño’s presence in Las Vegas, Nev. An existing location at Fiesta Rancho Hotel & Casino is “the number one Mexican food category brand in Las Vegas,” Long said.
The brand may also expand into other states in the future, he said.