Santiago's Mexican Restaurant, known for the spicy stuff it slips into everything from breakfast burritos to carnitas, isn't as old as Chubby's, but it already rivals the famed northwest Denver hot spot for the affections of green chile lovers in Colorado.
The 21-location chain was founded in Brighton in 1990 by Carmen Morales, who had worked with a brother in the restaurant business in Greeley before deciding to give her own place a shot. So she began churning out the recipes that her mother, Rachel Morales, had taught her, to wide approval. Morales christened the joint Santiago's, after the patron saint of Spain who is said to bring prosperity and ward off envy. So far, it seems to be working. After two of her daughters successfully opened Santiago's locations (one in Fort Lupton, one in Lafayette), the concept caught fire among friends and family.
"I think it has a lot do with our culture as Hispanics," says Carmen's daughter Rachel Wells (named for her grandmother) of the Fort Lupton Santiago's. "Everything is based around family. People always say, 'Don't do business with your family,' but we're finding out that's the best thing to do. Yes, there's always going to be some tense times, but for the most part, you know them so well and know what to expect of them that there's no surprises."
Carmen only allowed family members or people she'd worked with and trusted to carry the Santiago's flag. She arranged for licensing agreements — rather than franchising — to ensure that the quality of the restaurant would be maintained everywhere and because she wanted to be able to legally shut down a spot if it wasn't.
"We've closed Santiago's before," Wells says. "And that's the thing about having this place. If people don't agree to your terms and try to do something undermining, then they have to get out. Unfortunately, sometimes that happens because people don't have that respect for where they came from, for where the business came from. And that's when they start thinking they did everything themselves and get greedy."
Carmen just opened a new restaurant in Fort Morgan and recently flew to Oregon to help a nephew open a Santiago's there. Her "Authentic Green Chile Sauce With Pork" has even found its way into local supermarkets. "That was kind of me getting bored," Wells says with a laugh. "So I asked my mom's permission to try and talk to people to see if we could get it into stores. We didn't even know where to start, so me and my mom and my sister would go to places like the King Soopers headquarters, and they would kind of laugh at us, like, 'Oh yeah, you three little girls, what do you think you're doing?'"
Knocking on front doors didn't work, so the girls found a back entrance, teaming up with a friend who already distributed Mexican foods to markets around the state. The pairing proved fortuitous, and now Santiago's green chile fans can purchase hot, mild and "half/half" packages at King Soopers, Albertsons, City Market, Avanza and Wal-Mart. The words "Inspired by Rachel Morales" are printed on every label.
"It pays to be loyal to your vendors," Wells remarks.
And to your family.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.