The Santiago’s at 571 Santa Fe Drive sees a steady influx of breakfast seekers even at mid-morning — well after the main rush-hour crush of Denverites grabbing their daily breakfast burritos. But few customers, fixated as they are on their foil-wrapped repast, realize that the woman who started it all is sitting in their midst.
Carmen Morales, born and raised just outside of Denver in the northern suburb of Brighton, opened the first Santiago’s in her home town in 1990; she’s since expanded the mini-empire to 28 company-owned and franchised locations along the Front Range (find them all at eatatsantiagos.com). She’s here at the Santa Fe shop to talk about an honor that the City of Denver has bestowed upon one of the city’s defining dishes: the humble breakfast burrito. Last month, Mayor Michael Hancock proclaimed that the second Saturday in October would henceforth be known as Breakfast Burrito Day; Santiago’s participated in the announcement as the representative of Denver’s favorite breakfast food.
“It’s a great opportunity for us as a local family business,” Morales explains. While Santiago’s didn’t invent the breakfast burrito, its name is all but synonymous with the tortilla-wrapped specialty that’s best when loaded with the company’s distinctive green chile — “my mother’s green chile recipe,” she says.
When Morales opened the first Santiago’s, she’d already built a career in the public sector, first with Adams County and then in a community outreach program with the State of Colorado; she was also a dance instructor with Ballet Folklórico and worked with a group doing intervention with rural minority youth at risk for alcoholism. One of her primary motivations for starting a restaurant was to be able to provide jobs in her community. “If I open a restaurant, I can give the tools to others,” she recalls thinking.
The restaurant’s moniker came from the Spanish name for Saint James. “I’m not naming it after myself,” Morales decided at the time. “I need all the help I can get, so I’m naming it after a saint!”
But Santiago’s took off faster than she could have imagined. “We got busier and busier, and I had to quit my job and dedicate myself full-time to the restaurant,” Morales says. Three years later she opened a second Santiago’s in Lafayette, and she’s been adding links to the chain ever since.
Despite the amazing growth, some things haven’t changed at Santiago’s. Morales’s first cook is still at the original location, and the owner still believes in sourcing the best ingredients she can. Eggs, for example, come from Morning Fresh Farms in nearby Platteville, and Morales brings in Hatch green chiles from New Mexico, because that’s the kind that her mother and father, both New Mexico natives, liked best.
Morales is a prime example of Denver’s cultural melting pot. Her great-grandfather served in World War I, her grandfather in World War II and three of her brothers in Vietnam. Although she didn’t grow up speaking Spanish (she didn’t learn the language until after she opened her first restaurant), she and her family are imbued with the spirit of the Mountain West and the Hispanic culture that has called this area home for longer than Colorado has been a state. The food at Santiago’s is Mexican, but the kind of Mexican that evolved in this region to suit local tastes and take advantage of local ingredients.
Green chile, for example, is more than just a sauce in Denver; it’s the result of time and patience and a dedication to tradition. Green chile as it’s made in this city is the cooked-down result of thousands of family meals. “I always relate it to Italian-American families and red sauce,” Morales says. She thinks her family’s version evolved as a way to feed a big family — she has seven brothers — without costing too much.
And at Santiago’s, it’s ladled on almost everything. “In one year, we go through almost half a million gallons of green chile,” Morales notes. But green chile and breakfast burritos aren’t the only things Santiago’s serves. Morales is proud of the New Mexico-style red chile, which she likes best over a simple plate of shredded chicken. And most of the many locations serve full entrees for lunch and dinner in addition to offering to-go breakfasts.
Another constant has been the company’s dedication to the community and to charitable causes; Morales chooses organizations that are close to her and her family and uses the restaurants’ popularity to raise money for them. For the past fourteen years, Santiago’s has run a summer-long charity campaign; this year’s efforts raised $220,000 through a golf tournament, T-shirt sales and in-store promotions for Caruso Family Charities, which supports the families of terminally ill children.
Morales’s daughter, Rachel Wells, is also an owner in the company, which just keeps growing. A new location at East Hampden Avenue and I-25 opened in June, and the family just bought a building in Lochbuie that once housed a police station and will soon be a Santiago’s; Morales says residents of that town voted to sell the property to her company.
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As part of Denver’s first Breakfast Burrito Day, on Saturday, October 14, all Santiago’s locations will roll back prices to 1990 and offer burritos stuffed with eggs and green chile (and cheese, if you want it) for $1.25 each. There will be a limit of five per person, but the special will run all day until closing time at each spot, giving customers a few extra hours beyond the usual service time to grab a burrito and go.
As we talk, police officers, firefighters, businesspeople in sharp suits and neighborhood residents in hoodies and Broncos jerseys line up for breakfast. Many of them collect big orders in white paper bags, supporting them underneath with one hand to keep the bottoms from tearing out. Meanwhile, employees in the kitchen continue to quickly roll more burritos — Santiago’s holds speed contests to see which team member can roll the fastest, tidiest burritos — that will disappear just as quickly.
Yes, there are other good breakfast burrito joints in town, many of which seem to spring up near a Santiago’s just to give the popular chain a run for its money. But Morales says she wishes them well: “Going into business for yourself is a huge step, so I just wish everyone luck.” But it takes more than luck to make it big in Denver’s Mexican-restaurant scene. It takes dedication to family, to good recipes and to the community.
And maybe the watchful eye of Santiago himself.