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It's not easy improving on an old family recipe. That's what Alice "Candy" Gonzales discovered when she tried cooking up a few innovations at M&G Cafe, the restaurant at 2706 Larimer that her grandmother, Pat Gaitan, founded 43 years ago.
Gaitan grew up on a Colorado farm where, as a young girl, she spent her days picking corn and sugar beets. That back-breaking work convinced her that the business world might be more to her liking, and when she got older, she moved to Denver. She tried several jobs here--including one at the old Pete's Cafe at 20th and Larimer streets, which she quit to run a local pool hall.
By then, though, Gaitan harbored hopes of owning her own business. So when the building that now houses M&G became available, she bought it. She leased the place out at first, but in 1954 she decided it was time to open a restaurant, one that would serve authentic Mexican food based on her family's recipes.
Over the years, the area around M&G kept changing, from modest working-class neighborhood to skid row and back up again, but the down-home cafe's popularity remained constant.
Gaitan passed away last fall; her son, Mike Gonzales, owns and runs the cafe with the help of his wife, Alice, and her brother Tony Garcia. Although they say the restaurant is doing quite well, Alice and Mike are reaching the point where they're ready to retire. "We want to experience some things in life," says Alice. "Especially since Pat died, we have realized that life is short."
So Candy Gonzales, the daughter of Mike and Alice, has stepped up to the plate. (Candy's younger brother, Steve, has also shown signs of interest in the family business). While her parents ran the cafe much as her grandmother did, Candy decided it was time to make some changes. In February she tried keeping the M&G open until 4 a.m., in hopes of attracting the after-hours crowd that frequents clubs in the area, but she found that tinkering with a tried-and-true formula isn't as easy as it seems. "The late hours are an impossibility for now," she says, "because with such a small staff, everyone was exhausted during the day after the long hours at night." And, as Mike Gonzales points out, the neighborhood hasn't changed that much, and "an unsavory crowd was attracted to the late hours."
Candy compromised by keeping the cafe open until midnight on weekends; she might add the late hours again in the summer. In the meantime, she's looking at expanding the menu beyond M&G's great Mexican hamburgers, perhaps even adding desserts--something Gaitan never offered. "To make sure this restaurant lasts another 43 years," Candy says, "we have to change with the times."