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Family-owned restaurant owners remain optimistic despite challenges

'We will continue listening to people and what they want'

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Amelia Lopez and her husband opened a Mexican restaurant in Highlands Ranch 15 years ago. Their restaurant, El Meson, has grown with the community — many customers who were once children are now in college.

After their success with a pub and barbecue joint in Genesee, Joylyn Quintana and Scott Smith decided to open another restaurant in Highlands Ranch last December. Smith's son is the general manager. Several of their recipes at The Ranch are homegrown.

Both are examples of family-owned restaurants in Highlands Ranch, which are too often outnumbered by chains and franchises, many residents say. Within a four-mile radius, two Chick-fil-As, two Wendy's, a McDonald's, two Jimmy John's and a handful of other fast food eateries exist. Dining options are similar in shopping centers and new developments, like Central Park, where an Old Chicago and MAD Greens recently opened. Both are corporate run.

With increasing rent costs and unsteady business, running a family-owned restaurant in Highlands Ranch is challenging, some owners say. But they want to be part of the community. And through word of mouth and social media, it appears the community wants the same.

“I want good food that isn't fried chain-restaurant food,” resident Shelby Caldwell Sipe commented on a Facebook post inquiring about the types of restaurants in the community.

“We came from Chicago, where there are a lot of family-owned businesses and every one had their favorite,” said Maureen McKee, also a resident. “I think it is important because it supports the creativity and pride for these people.”

Coming and leaving

In 1967, Neil and Ellie Romano opened Romano's Italian restaurant in Littleton, 5666 S Windermere St. Now, more than 50 years and five expansions later, their three children run the place. The restaurant is home for a lot of people, said John Romano, one of the three siblings.

“When people are coming back into town or back from school, they want to come here,” he said. “It's a place where people feel comfortable.”

In 2005, they decided to open a second location off South Broadway in Highlands Ranch. About eight years later, an increase in rent forced them to close.

“We decided it was time to move out,” said Romano. “It was a good spot for us, we enjoyed being there. We built up a nice clientele. Luckily, a lot of them come see us here in Littleton.”

High rent is a concern among restaurants and retail businesses in Highlands Ranch. Last year, three businesses in Village Center West — a shopping center with retail and dining near the intersection of Highlands Ranch Parkway and South Broadway — closed. Some owners pointed to rising rent costs as the reason.

In the third quarter of 2017, the average lease rate for a commercial space in Highlands Ranch was $27 per square foot, according to Douglas County documents. That's more than in Castle Rock, at $25.61 per square foot, and the Denver metro area as a whole, at $25.79, but less than Lone Tree, at $28.88 per square foot.

In December, Quintana and Smith opened The Ranch, 1164 Sergeant Jon Stiles Drive, near Town Center North. The married couple of eight years saw the opportunity and thought they'd give it a shot, they said. Three months in, they are already feeling the effects of high rent, which is about $30 per square foot, Smith said. For their pub in Genesee, they pay roughly $15 per square foot.

“It's a really high-end rent here,” said Smith. “Weekends are great. During the week, there are days when the mountain town location does better — which is concerning because it's two-thirds less the size.”

Still, they are optimistic about the restaurant's future and are eager to be part of the community. They boast an elaborate menu of slow-cooked meats, sandwiches, salads and seafood. After receiving requests from residents, they added mac and cheese, Texas toast and steak. To cater to the large presence of young families, they added a kid's menu, which includes a free cookie. They will soon offer live music on Thursdays and Saturdays.

A member of their family is always in the restaurant and they swear by some of their one-of-a-kind recipes, like Quintana's green chile and Smith's clam chowder.

“I'm from Cape Cod,” said Smith. “I make the best clam chowder. Period.”

Looking ahead

Fourteen restaurants are registered with the Highlands Ranch Chamber of Commerce. About half are family-owned or locally operated. Others are franchises, and several of them are owned by local families or community members, including Egg & I and Kneaders.

All of the restaurants “place a priority on community involvement,” said Andrea LaRew, president of the chamber. Without it, she foresees family-owned restaurants running into challenges.

“Their success can depend heavily on how they relate to the community,” LaRew said. “One benefit from an economic standpoint is that it is highly likely they will hire locally, purchase locally and support organizations within the community they serve.”

Which is what the owners of The Ranch are doing. The restaurant is sponsoring local sports teams and partnering with the Highlands Ranch Community Association to provide food to volunteers during events. Their goal is to start catering at least three small or large events — like a rehearsal dinner — per week.

“We will continue listening to people and what they want,” Smith said.

For Lopez, who owns El Meson, at 3506 W Town Center Drive, near Redstone Park, her restaurant has been successful because it is traditional. Her grandparents and great grandparents, who owned small restaurants in Mexico, were her inspiration. El Meson's menu is an assortment of their recipes and Tex-Mex.

Repeat customers — families, children, college students who are home for break — come for the experience, Lopez said.

“To have a small Mexican restaurant where your family goes to make memories and be in touch with something different than fast food chains is important,” Lopez said. “Tradition is really important to us. It's important for the family.”

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