Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
It’s a Thursday afternoon, shortly before 2 p.m., and Mike Hartzog is taking phone orders from customers at the pickup counter for Casa de Benavidez in the North Valley.
One customer, Mark McCarthy, calls in an order for a bean burrito. Five minutes later, McCarthy comes in, greets Hartzog and a conversation ensues before Hartzog hands him his burrito.
Shortly after McCarthy leaves with his order, “Sunshine” walks in and picks up her order. “Sunshine,” as Hartzog calls her, is Linda Smith – a customer at Casa de Benavidez for more than 15 years.
Smith and McCarthy – who has been coming to the restaurant for more than two decades – say Hartzog knows their orders by heart and, if they order something different, he’ll ask what the reason is for the change.
That’s because Hartzog has worked at Casa de Benavidez for 33 years – and counting. If Casa de Benavidez is an institution, then Hartzog is clearly its face.
“He takes the time to know who you are,” Smith said.
Hartzog graduated from Cibola High School in the spring of 1989 with no idea what was going to come after.
Sitting at home for about a month, Hartzog landed the job at Casa de Benavidez with a bit of luck. The owner, Rita Benavidez, was his next door neighbor in the Paradise Hills neighborhood.
Hartzog said Benavidez typically didn’t hire friends or neighbors because “she didn’t want bad blood.”
But Benavidez extended the job offer to Hartzog and he was initially supposed to work there for a summer as a busboy. But, then, one summer turned into two summers and it just kept going.
“My mom teases me every day now,” Hartzog said. “But I love what I do. I love my customers.”
And customers really are at the heart of Hartzog’s work. Having shifted from busboy to leading the carryout portion of the restaurant, he has met many customers, most of whom are regulars.
He even lists off some of his regulars, most of whom are well known in and around the state: Sam Bregman – who gets a sausage breakfast burrito – Raymond Sanchez and the now-deceased Sal Fresquez, just to name a few.
“They keep me going,” Hartzog said.
Paul T. Benavidez, general manager for the North Valley restaurant, said it has been hard to retain employees or staff since the pandemic. But he said having an employee such as Hartzog – who can remember the voice of a customer over the phone, as well as their order – has been key to keeping the business going.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Benavidez said.
Hartzog’s routine is much the same as it has been since the get-go. Work six days a week, typically from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Start by brewing the tea and getting everything in order. Then, answer phone orders, and greet and serve customers.
Hartzog figures he will retire from Casa de Benavidez because he can’t see himself doing anything else.
“I don’t want to go somewhere else,” he said. “Heck, I never even thought about going somewhere else.”