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A half-century of pleasing their patrons

Cindy Seifert was just passing through Albuquerque – or so she thought.

bizO-Dyer_Jessica_BizOIt was the 1970s and the 20-something New Yorker was traveling across the country with her then-husband. Along the way, they’d stop to explore various communities, taking odd jobs to further finance a journey they expected would end for good in Colorado.

But Albuquerque – and a little New Mexican food restaurant in its Northeast Heights – became Seifert’s permanent home instead.

A job as a waitress under La Salita founders Sam and Ronnie Pachanian led to her purchase of the restaurant in 1978. She and her family have shepherded it ever since, guiding it to its newest milestone – a 50th anniversary it is celebrating this summer.

“La Salita has taken good care of me and my family, and the people who’ve come through this place,” Seifert says from a table inside the quaint eatery, tearing up a little at the memories. “The amount of lives this place has touched is just incredible.”

Server Blanca Rivas serves customers on a recent weekday at La Salita. Pictured at the table, from left, are David Smith, Larry Lethgo, John Ingram and Albert McNiel.

Server Blanca Rivas serves customers on a recent weekday at La Salita. Pictured at the table, from left, are David Smith, Larry Lethgo, John Ingram and Albert McNiel.

It’s also filled a lot of bellies through the years and continues to be a neighborhood favorite. The La Salita crew – which today includes four additional ownership partners: Rory Balderrama; Seifert’s son, James; and her daughter and son-in-law, Stephanie and Erik Eddings – even rearranged the interior recently to create extra waiting-area space for the crowds. When La Salita opens for the day, staff often find a line of customers already standing outside the front door.

“When you create a friendship with your customers, not only do they see they can help you out by buying your food, they also want to go there for the connection,” Erik Eddings says. “They just come back time and time again.”

On a menu that includes burritos, stuffed sopaipillas and huevos rancheros, the most popular choice might just be the “combo one,” which includes a cheese enchilada and a chile relleno. Those rellenos – dipped to order in a batter made fresh daily – have become something of a calling card for the restaurant, which offers rellenos with a choice of three fillings: cheddar, Swiss cheese or even a vegan-friendly avocado.

The menu has evolved under Seifert – who often works the kitchen while having conversations with customers through a window into the dining room – but she credits the Pachanians for the sopaipillas.

“Sam had a knack for this kind of stuff,” she says of the founder, who at one time ran a doughnut shop in Albuquerque. “His sopaipilla recipe is really one of the best.”

Sam Pachanian is also the reason behind La Salita’s somewhat curious fowl preference – turkey’s all over the menu, but there’s no chicken. Pachanian had a pet chicken as a child, but came home one day to discover that necessity prompted his parents to cook it for dinner, according to Seifert.

“After that,” she says, “he never ate chicken again.”

La Salita will celebrate its 50th anniversary all summer with specials at “throwback” prices every Tuesday – in June, that means an à la carte ground beef taco for $1.50. But while the owners are paying homage to the past, they’re also considering the future of the business. Erik Eddings says there are some plans to expand in the coming years.

La Salita, located near the intersection of Eubank and Constitution, is open Tuesday through Saturday. Hours vary by day. The phone number is 299-9968.

Independence Dayz

Gary Hines helped build a mini-restaurant empire on burritos and burgers.

Gary Hines, a former Twisters owner, has launched an independent dollar store in Northeast Albuquerque called Dollar Dayz. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Gary Hines, a former Twisters owner, has launched an independent dollar store in Northeast Albuquerque called Dollar Dayz. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Now he wants to do the same thing in retail using discount dish soap and dog toys.

Hines – who recently sold his stake in the Albuquerque-based Twisters chain – has channeled his entrepreneurial energy into a new project: Dollar Dayz.

He opened the first location of the independent dollar store this spring at 1016 Juan Tabo NE and hopes to start on a second location within six months.

Hines started Twisters with Ray Ubieta in 1998. By the time it was sold earlier this year, the chain had grown to 19 locations, even in a restaurant segment dominated by national names. The trajectory inspired him to try something similar in a different industry.

Hines says he researched the dollar-store model and the competition, and came to the conclusion that there was a market opportunity for a locally owned version. He says he can tap into the same product supply network used by other independents around the U.S. to help keep his shelves full.

And, as a small operator, he says he can focus more on customer experience, like maintaining clean bathrooms and fielding consumer requests for specific products.

“I’ve always liked the competition and I think we can hopefully carve something out (with Dollar Dayz),” he says.

The flagship store has about 140,000 items on its shelves. About 60 percent ring up at $1, whether it’s a box of saltine crackers, a spatula or a four-pack of miniature highlighters.

Customers will pay more for certain goods, often those from more recognizable brand names. A can of Healthy Choice chicken-with-rice soup, for example, costs $1.75.

“We did good with this little, independent thing with Twisters (and) I kind of liked that route, and I think there is a niche in (the dollar store) business,” he says.

Dollar Dayz is located on Juan Tabo, north of Lomas. It’s open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Closing time coming for Country Casuals

It’s curtains for Country Casuals.

One of the city’s oldest independent clothing retailers is preparing to close its Hoffmantown Shopping Center doors.

Cassandra Cochran, who owns the women’s clothing boutique with husband Allan, says her desire to retire prompted the decision. The store already has begun closing sales and will likely be gone by September, she says.

“If I didn’t (close now), I’d be working to age 80,” she says, noting that her husband has been pushing her to make the call for the past two years. “I just need to retire. It’s time.”

The Cochrans launched Country Casuals in 1978 in the First Plaza Galeria in Downtown Albuquerque. They expanded to Hoffmantown two years later and grew to five locations – three Country Casuals stores and a pair of Shooze shoe stores – in the 1980s, she says. They gradually consolidated into the single Hoffmantown store.

Cochran’s experience in retail predates even that; growing up in Socorro, her family operated the local department store.

“It’s bittersweet, because I’ve been in it for so long,” she says of leaving the retail business.

The industry has changed a great deal during Country Casuals’ run. Business took a hit in 2008 and never fully stabilized, Cochran says. Competition for shopper dollars has mounted, too.

But Cochran said her store persevered and was still doing OK because it didn’t carry what everyone else carried and offered a more intimate shopping experience.

“There’s a lot of stores open now, but they’re all big box, they’re all chain stores. They’re not like us – we’re unique. We give personalized help, which these big stores don’t do, and we still have a lot of customers who like that,” says Cochran, adding that she’ll miss customer relationships more than anything else about the business.

Country Casuals is located at 8232 Menaul NE, at Wyoming.

In other news …

Jersey Mike’s Subs has opened its second Albuquerque location. The sandwich chain – owned locally by franchisees/brothers Tom and Jeff McCollum – is up and running at 6060 San Mateo NE, near Osuna. Tom McCollum says it’s the first drive-through location for the company, which has 1,500 locations open or under development around the country. The McCollums are close to cementing deals for two more local stores and ultimately plan to open as many as 10 in the area.

The brothers are restaurant veterans. They own 19 Burger Kings in the area and are currently working on another location – they have submitted a building permit application for a new Burger King on Rio Grande Boulevard, just south of Interstate 40.

If you have retail news to share, contact me at jdyer@abqjournal.com or 823-3864. For more regular updates on Albuquerque shopping and restaurant news, visit my blog at abqjournal.com or follow @abqdyer on Twitter.

 

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