Food Fight!

If you can't stand the heat, get out of Lupe Nunez's kitchen.

And the city made every effort not to let Nunez down, Lysaught adds. "We've for years supported the Small Business Development Center at the Greater Denver Chamber of Commerce," he says. "We make a financial commitment to them, and in exchange, their people go out and work with our clients." The person the SBDC sent out to work with Nunez was Stephanie Herrera. Citing SBDC's confidentiality rules, Herrera says she's not allowed to discuss specifics regarding La Bonita, but she does acknowledge that she worked with Nunez from the time the restaurant started having trouble, six months after it opened, until Herrera resigned from the SBDC in September 1997.

"I was over there a lot," says Herrera, who now works as an economic-development specialist for Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation. "When I say a lot," she adds, "I mean a lot."

But it wasn't enough to save La Bonita.
"I'm telling you, this whole thing makes me sick," says Mark del Hierra, a neighbor who bartended at the Plain View through both previous ownerships and who still volunteers his time at the bar and anywhere else Nunez needs him to be. "These nice people, and to watch this going on...Lupe wouldn't hurt anyone, and she'd give you whatever she had. It's like the city just threw this money at her, and then they washed their hands of it."

And the city wasn't alone. Many of Nunez's family members, who'd come on like gangbusters during the loan application process, slowly disappeared from the day-to-day operation. "For a family-run business, it's pretty sad how this family has acted," Lysaught says. "There were all these promises made when Lupe first came to us, and all these family members stepped forward and pledged their support. One was going to be the treasurer and handle the money, one was going to take care of managing the staff. Where are they now?"

A La Bonita regular is asking the same question. The gruff, chain-smoking, sixty-something patron (who asked that his name not be used) says he's been eating at La Bonita since he was a kid. "Let me tell you something," he says, jabbing at the air with the still-smoking stub of a cigarette. "There were family members who came in and told Lupe that they were going to help her out and that they would work for free, and then they stole from her. We caught some of them. Some of us customers here are here all the time, and we would watch these supposed friends and family not ring up drinks and pocket the money. We even called a couple of them on it. With family like that, who needs enemies, you know?"

Casco has helped out at La Bonita most of her life, despite a 1979 car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She admits there's been some friction with family members. "They think that since they're working here for free, then they're entitled to help themselves to food and cash," she says. "It's hurt us, yes, but what can we do? It's family." And some friends, she adds, have truly been a help--like Jose Santoyo, a waiter at La Bonita for 28 years.

Although they disagree as to how Nunez got in this fix, almost everyone who knows her agrees on one thing: that it's awful for someone her age, and with her long Denver history, to be in this painful position. "We're very willing to put Lupe on a very long-term payment plan," Lysaught says. "We have people who are making payments over a twenty-year period. We don't want people to be punished for a business failure."

Personally, Lysaught adds, it hurt to have to take Casco's house. But his first responsibility is to get the city's money back. "We were the only lienholders on Mary Ellen Casco's house," Lysaught says. "But we're really subordinate to the bank, so they get first dibs on collection."

And that means Vectra Bank has the power to foreclose on Nunez's home. An officer of the bank's special-assets department (who also asked to remain anonymous) confirms there's a potential buyer for the house but says the details have yet to be worked out.

As for any possible sale of La Bonita, he adds, "I honestly have to tell you, I don't know. All I can say is that nothing concrete has come together yet."

It's after lunch on Thursday, and Nunez is taking a brief rest before it's time to get ready for dinner. The restaurant is open every day but Monday, and six days a week she comes in before breakfast and doesn't leave until 10 p.m., after all the cleaning up from dinner is done. "I clean my house on Mondays," she says, and four of her great-grandchildren--she has 22 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren--nod in acknowledgment. "She never stops," says one of the twins.

Family members come and go throughout the afternoon, stopping by to say hello and grab a few tacos or some beans and rice. "My mom's the hardest-working woman I've ever known," Casco says, as Nunez gets up to fetch something for one of the children. "I don't know what it is that keeps her going."

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