Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
When the owners of Bob’s Burgers applied for a small business loan in the 1970s, the Small Business Administration was less than hopeful after seeing their books.
“They said, ‘You know what? I think you’ve got to get out of the business. You’re not going to do well,'” recounted Christina Salas, wife of the eponymous Bob Salas. “They told us that. We went back to work, (and) forgot about what they said.”
That was long before Bob’s Burgers became an Albuquerque institution, with 11 locations around the state. This year the restaurant, founded in 1963, celebrates its 60th anniversary. When it opened, it made between $40 and $50 per day and had under a dozen employees. Burgers cost 60 cents; taco burgers cost just 25. Bob Salas was happy if he could make his car payment at the end of the week.
Now, the chain employs more than 150 people. On a busy Taco Tuesday, Bob’s Burgers can sell thousands of taco burgers.
Born and raised in the South Valley, Bob Salas opened the inaugural restaurant at Copper and Sixth in Downtown Albuquerque, originally called “Bob’s Grill,” the year after he graduated from high school. He was just 19.
“It was kind of a strange situation,” Bob Salas said about why he got into the business so young.
His father, a car salesman at Galles Chevrolet, often ate lunch at a cafe called Dee’s Dairy Mart. The Dairy Mart owner ended up having to close – and Bob Salas’ dad decided to bid on the equipment.
He bought it for $1,500, and installed his son as the owner. Bob Salas had no business or cooking experience – Dee himself taught the young restaurateur how to make hamburgers, including the taco burger that Bob’s Burgers is now known for.
“Can you imagine that? Dee showed him how to make hamburgers,” said Theresa “Tessie” Salas, Bob’s sister-in-law. Theresa Salas was married to Tom Salas, Bob’s brother, who later became a co-owner. Tom Salas died in 2020, after he and his wife had both retired.
Tessie and Christina Salas worked as waitresses at the restaurant. And between the two of them, brothers Tom and Bob Salas worked almost every job in the restaurant.
“We were the chief, the cook and the bottle washer,” Bob Salas said.
Christina Salas said when she and her family started the restaurant, they were younger than their own employees. Now, they’ve worked with generations of employees.
“As time goes on, we were old enough to be their parents,” Christina Salas said. “… I’m moving up to be their grandparents – great-grandparents, probably. Sometimes they think I even treat them like that, I tell them things like a grandma would tell a grandchild.”
The two couples’ children grew up in the restaurant. When Christina and Bob Salas couldn’t find a babysitter, they would stash their daughter, Lisa, in a box in the restaurant to play with the ketchup bottles. And Theresa and Tom’s son, Clifford Salas, started working at Bob’s Burgers when he was 14. Clifford Salas and his wife, Lydia Salas, opened their first Bob’s Burgers location in 1997. Now they own seven locations.
Both Bob and Christina hope to retire soon. But the restaurant will remain with the Salas family. Bob’s daughter, Kim Herrera, and son-in-law, Louie Gamboa, also work in the family business. And three of Bob, Tom, Tessie and Christina’s grandchildren also work at Bob’s Burgers.
“We’re family first, business second,” Clifford Salas said, quoting his late father.