When UNM freshman Pete Villegas took a part-time night shift job at a newly opened little diner across the street from campus, that’s all it was: a part-time job at a little diner across the street from campus.
The eldest of six children in a military family, Villegas had recently departed early from the U.S. Air Force Academy – “Let’s say military was not a career choice for me” – and was bound, he thought, for a teaching career.
But the job was good, and Villegas found he was good at it and he stayed – and stayed, and stayed.
Since then, that diner, Frontier Restaurant, has roughly tripled in size and has achieved local landmark status. And Villegas is finally moving on today, Monday – 50 years later.
Frontier’s big windows look out on Central, offering a front-row view to the city’s most historic thoroughfare. Villegas, now the restaurant’s general manager, has seen a bit in his half-century on the job.
He was there when cheer squads from rival high school basketball teams both wound up at Frontier for a post-game snack, and broke into impromptu dueling spirit displays from opposite ends of the dining room.
“So I’m looking, I’m saying, ‘What’s all the noise out there?'” Villegas said. “… They were actually doing several cheers against each other.”
He was there when movie producers used the last dining room to film a scene of “Coyote Waits,” an adaptation of the Tony Hillerman novel – fun to watch, but a bit disruptive to restaurant operations, Villegas recalls.
He was there, albeit back in the kitchen, when a streaker treated diners to a mercifully brief pass-through peep show. Villegas said he heard a commotion and came out to investigate.
“I didn’t even see him,” Villegas said. “… It was funny. But he must have been fast, I mean, he had his tennis shoes (and) just ran through.”
He once witnessed an eating contest involving the famous Frontier Burrito, marveling at the winner.
“I can barely finish one, but he ate three-and-a-half before he said, ‘I can’t do it anymore,'” Villegas said, laughing.
Today, if you ask him, Villegas will tell you the Frontier Burrito is his favorite menu item, and the fresh-squeezed orange juice is a must-try. He’ll nibble on the sweet rolls, but “learned a few years ago” not to get too stuck on the sweet rolls.
Villegas has seen birthday celebrations, served the faithful daily coffee drinkers, made room for the chess club that for years set up shop once a week.
He’s watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of employees come and go – some of whom later came back to visit and tell Villegas what a mark he made on their lives.
“What I enjoy most working here is (being) able to make a difference in young people’s lives, and that means coaching them on their work ethic, coaching them on their decisions, on their judgment.”
Villegas said. “Sometimes they look at me as a father figure and would ask me questions, and I’d say, ‘Look, I don’t have the answer, but I can relate experiences to you.'”
Larry Rainosek, who co-owns Frontier with his wife, Dorothy, said Villegas has had a major role in Frontier’s development.
“He definitely was a big part of the growth of Frontier and of course the status or position that Frontier has in the community,” Larry Rainosek said. “… I think he can feel very feel good about the fact that he was the lead guy in keeping this growing.”
He’s done every task in the restaurant, and Villegas said in his 50 years at Frontier, he has never taken a single sick day. He concedes he has come to work with the occasional cold, but attributes his generally good health to lots of vitamin C and regular workouts with a heavy bag.
Rainosek said he thinks Villegas’ memory is correct – he even recalls Villegas injuring his back, but still coming into work for a shorter shift.
“He was an exceptional, dependable, solid individual,” Rainosek said.
The pandemic has been tough on Frontier as it has been for many restaurants. Villegas said the changing regulations have been an adjustment, but generally the various safety precautions Frontier has put into place – an emphasis on cleaning, daily temperature monitoring, and split shifts to keep crews away from each other – seem to have helped keep staff healthy and customers coming back, despite a few temporary closures. To keep serving through various stages of the shut-downs, Frontier installed a carryout window and kept outdoor service going. It has avoided layoffs for full-time employees who have wanted to work, keeping some busy with renovations and repairs during slow times. Rainosek said the restaurant only laid off a few part-time workers. They’ve encouraged staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, offering $50 Walmart gift cards as an incentive.
Villegas said business has picked up quickly as restrictions have eased.
“Mother’s Day was fantastic,” he said. “… We put like 20 tables outside because the weather was really nice, thank goodness. … People were understanding. I mean, we had to slow down the line because we were getting too full on Mother’s Day.”
But, Villegas said, it’s time to retire.
Villegas said he’s going to miss Frontier, but he doesn’t plan to slow down in retirement. He enjoys drawing with charcoal and painting with oils. He’s a private pilot, but is mainly interested in flying a motorized parachute. He’s a longtime boxer, and, at the age of 46, earned a black belt in Taekwondo. He hopes to spend time in nature, with his wife and with his six children – four local, two in Florida.
“I’ve got a whole agenda of what I would like to do, and it’ll keep me going, and it’ll continue to challenge me,” Villegas said. “That’s what keeps you young, is those challenges every day. That’s what keeps you going.”
Gabrielle Porter is the Journal’s business editor. Send tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.