Smothered: The Saga of the Chubby's Empire

It's an early Saturday evening, and the tiny front room of Chubby's Burger Drive-In is absolutely popping with patrons, all waiting to gorge.

There are no tables here, no seats for dining, so customers place their order at the busy counter, then jockey for space to await their Chubby's infusion, delivered with remarkable efficiency courtesy of an assembly-line kitchen staff that churns out the beef, pork, chile, beans, tortillas, eggs and fries night after night, day after day. The sizzling smells wafting from the back kitchen make that interval all the more unbearable.

In one corner, four women, market researchers up from Colorado Springs, munch on chicharrones and discuss whether the lack of a receipt is going to mess up their per diem. One used to live in Denver, and tonight she's showing her co-workers her favorite takeout joint. Next to them, a Hispanic man with diamond earrings the size of baby fists sends out text messages and waits for his number to be called. He's been coming here since before he could talk, and like most Chubby's customers who have been reared on the restaurant's green chile, he'll pit Chubby's fare against any in the city.

Over the course of the evening, through dinner and beyond, the line at the counter will never dwindle and at times will reach a near breaking point. But things never spin out of control, and no one complains about the cramped quarters.

Watching over the entire scene, dressed in her Sunday best, is Stella Cordova, Chubby's matriarch. At 98, she still works four nights a week. But she's not in the kitchen anymore. Nor is she behind the register duping would-be robbers, like the time she quickly hid all the twenty-dollar bills and handed a masked burglar a paper bag full of ones. Now she sits and "keeps company," as she likes to say, watching her grandson Danny Cordova at the helm, grinning at the hubbub she first brought to life in 1967 here at the corner of 38th Avenue and Lipan Street.

"This is nothing. You ought to have seen the place last night," Danny says, uttering a line that is true almost any day at Chubby's. Wearing a gold chain and a white tank top under his black button-up short-sleeved shirt, Danny gives off the vibe of the guy from the block. He's been in and around Chubby's most of his 42 years. "These bikers came in. Big dudes in leather, with Harleys. And one guy picked up his girlfriend so she was upside down. Her feet were practically touching the ceiling. And then another biker dude started kissing on her! I thought we were going to have to call the cops."

He smiles at the thought, then hands a hundred-dollar bill to Stella, seated on a stool to the side of the register beneath a sign that reads "Too Blessed to Be Stressed."

"Here you go, banker," he says.

"These hoochies from the bar, they try to kiss Danny," Stella says with a they-ought-to-know-better smile, sliding the C-note into a gray lockbox by her knees. "Sometimes they try to jump over the counter to do it!"

In the wee hours of the morning, after the post-bar nighthawks have gotten their fill and the back-door beggars have worn out their welcome, Stella will catch a ride from someone working the kitchen to a nearby Village Inn and wind down the last hours of dark chatting with the waitstaff, munching on an egg sandwich or oatmeal with cinnamon, sipping on coffee and tea. As the sun rises, she'll be dropped back off at her home on Federal Boulevard. But even then she won't sleep. Danny, who lives in the basement, is accustomed to hearing his grandmother putter around for hours, the sound of her walker clanking like old pipes through the ceiling. She never stops, he says.

Danny, who co-manages the restaurant with her, is the heir to the throne at this Chubby's, but not to the Chubby's empire. That title may depend on the outcome of a recently opened legal battle between two of Stella's other grandchildren and on the abilities of the sprawling Cordova clan to figure out a way to get along.

Stella and her husband, Alex Cordova (who died in 1996), had ten children, and those children had children. And their children had children. Now the Cordova family tree is more like a forest (with a membership estimated to be anywhere from 170 to 230 people), and almost everyone has spent time at Stella's restaurant.

"Chubby's was my first job ever," says Angelo DeHerrera, Stella's great-grandson, whose father, Albert, still mans the register most weekdays. "I was working with my dad, literally, since before I could even reach the counters in the kitchen. I have done pretty much every job there is to be done at that place, like all of my family has."

But those long lines for Chubby's grub didn't go unnoticed, and for some relatives, working with their grandma wasn't enough. They've taken the Chubby's name and run with it, opening up Chubby's restaurants across the Front Range. There are now Chubby's in south Denver. And east Denver. And west Denver, Brighton and Aurora. There's a Chubby's in Arvada, a Chubby's in Northglenn, a Chubby's in Littleton and one in Golden. There are even rumors of a Chubby's that crossed state lines into Salt Lake City, peddling a reasonable facsimile of the fare that Stella made famous (or infamous, depending on your tolerance for the hot stuff) in northwest Denver.

Although Chubby's restaurants, and restaurants that use some version of the Chubby's name or recipes, come and go, there are currently at least fifteen in Colorado. Some of them opened with Stella's approval; most did not. And the difference between the two is indistinct at best. For her part, Stella seems resigned to this fact. She's bothered when customers complain about a bad egg-and-chorizo burrito from a restaurant with the same name, or how they paid too much for their smothered chile relleno. She'll sigh and explain that the others are Chubby's knockoffs. Usually, she'll give that person a freebie to make up for it. She's too old for a court fight, and it's not really in her nature.

But Stella knows she won't be here forever. Her 99th birthday is in April, and though she's is in fine health — save a nagging knee that doctors say isn't worth operating on — she has told some family members that she doesn't think she'll be around to see it. In the meantime, she'd like to see some sort of family order in place.

"It's going to be Danny when I pass on," Stella says. "Because Danny is the one that takes care of me. Just me and Danny are right now in charge, both of us. I wish everyone could work together, but I don't think they do. The brothers and sisters and cousins, they're not acting to help Danny. Some of them are actually hurting everything that we've established with Chubby's."

But it won't be that simple. When Stella does eventually pass, so, too, will the undisputed face of Chubby's, and there are many eager to assume that position.

My biggest problem is that I don't know how to say no," Stella explains, seated at a dining room table in her home, surrounded by eclectic items that seem a testament to that affliction. There are display cases stuffed full of collector dolls, cherubs and plastic flowers, gilded, Greek-style columns crammed into corners, decorative mirrors and photographs, drawings by the dozen. Then there are those "damn cross-eyeded cats" continually seeking affection, a parakeet, and a parrot that inexplicably squawks, "Pervert, pervert!" whenever the mood strikes him.

Stella didn't seek this stuff out so much as she just wasn't able to pass it up. Now, at her advanced age, she's trying to curb the habit. All month long, she's been practicing saying "no."

To everything.

"My great-granddaughter came into Chubby's, and she stood in front of me begging for twenty dollars," Stella explains. "And I said no. She walked out, and I thought, 'I should have said yes.' If I see somebody come over here and ask me for money, and I have money to give and say no, it makes me feel really, really bad. But then my granddaughter told me that it was good I didn't give her daughter the money, because she was just going to go spend it on the weed."

Born in the southern Colorado town of Walsenburg in 1909, Stella grew up working on a farm before moving to Greeley and meeting her husband, Alex, with whom she had five sons and five daughters. In 1951, the couple moved to Denver when Alex took a job as an oil skimmer for Conoco. Since her kids were grown, Stella worked as a maid and a dishwasher before noticing the "Cook Wanted" sign at a burger drive-in at 1231 West 38th, near her home.

She got the job, but business was slow, so the owner eventually decided to call it quits. He asked Stella if she wanted to buy the place, but Stella, who was making 85 cents an hour, didn't have nearly enough cash. Eager to sell, the owner made Stella a deal: $2,000 for the joint, $500 down, the rest to be made in payments. Stella couldn't say no, so she borrowed the down payment from a daughter and agreed to pay $50 a month until the building was paid off. She decided to keep the restaurant's name, Chubby's.

For the next few months, Stella continued to peddle burgers, fries, ice cream and shakes with no increase in customers. So she started serving tacos, burritos and tostadas, prepared the way she was taught by her grandmother back on the farm: with a heavy dose of spicy green chile. The formula worked, Chubby's started to boom, and like that, the 59-year-old Stella Cordova had a bona fide neighborhood institution on her hands — the sole Mexican-American eatery in what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood.

"Stella is such a great lady," says Tony Carbone of the neighboring Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli, a Denver institution in its own right. "She's one of a kind. I've never heard of a lady that old still running such a successful business. It's because of her nature; good things come back to her. She has taken care of this neighborhood so much, fed so many people who never had any money. She's always been there to lend a helping hand. And the food is delicious and so fresh. You don't find small businesses like that much anymore. Everyone knows Chubby's. It's a focal point of north Denver."

But it has spread far beyond the original. Nearly twenty different variations on the Chubby's name are listed in the Colorado Secretary of State's business records, in varying degrees of standing. Belindas Chubbys Inc, Chubby's, Chubby's #2, INC., Chubbys Bar and Grill INC, Chubbys Bubbachinos, Chubby's Burger Drive In, Chubby's Inc, Chubby's Mexican Food, Chubby's Mexican Restaurant LLC, Cordova's Original Chubby's, Cordovas Original Chubbys Burger Drive Inn No 1 INC., Demis's Chubby's Enterprises, INC., Denver's Original Chubby's LLC, El Chubby's, INC., Gotta Get My Chubby's, JINKS C's Chubbys, Original Chubby Mexican Food A Taste Above the Rest.

Many are registered to owners with the last name of Cordova.

"Thirty-eighth and Lipan, that's the only one we sanction," says Danny, noting that he and his grandmother are registered with the Secretary of State under the name The Original Chubby's Inc. "We don't have another at all, period."

Nor do the others pay a franchise fee or any other revenues to Stella, he says.

"All those other Chubby's, they give us a bad rep because they say they are related to ours, and people come and complain to us about the poor quality of the product or the high prices at another location," he says. "It hurts our business. What I want is for people to recognize that Stella is the founder of all this. She's the owner, she deserves the credit — and all those other Chubby's that try to knock her out of the business, try to take all the credit for themselves? That's just shameful."

That is why the bottom of Chubby's takeout menus, which Danny printed, read: "NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OTHER CHUBBYS." For Danny, the picture is clear.

But for Stella, the story is murkier.

There are three other Chubby's that she "allowed," as she puts it: two owned by her son Tony (one at 9282 West 58th Avenue in Arvada and one in a strip mall at I-70 and York Street) and one owned by her grandson Julian, at 83rd and Washington Street.

Further complicating matters is that neither Stella nor Danny applied for United States Patent and Trademark Office protection until February 2004. And by then, others had beaten them to the punch. El Chubby's, for example, which one of Stella's daughters opened in Aurora and later sold to a familial acquaintance, trademarked the name first and so is legally protected. (The current owner of El Chubby's, Norman Campbell, declines to elaborate on his relationship with Stella's Chubby's.)

"We should have done it earlier," Danny says, but he and Stella had always figured that "people shouldn't be taking advantage of us like that."

Stella and Danny are leaving El Chubby's alone, but they intend to go after the others using trademark laws that could allow them to reclaim the rights to the name.

"If someone beats you to a certain trademark, sometimes that's that," says their attorney, Dan Bonifazi. "But in some instances, when there has been a name commonly used in the public forum, there are ways to un-ring that bell."

For now, Danny and Stella are letting another family member — one who has sliced off his own piece of the Chubby's empire — take the lead in the courtroom.

Julian Cordova has attempted to trademark a version of the Chubby's name and logo. He has also registered the names "Original Chubby's," "Original Chubbys Mexican Food" and "Chubbys" with the Colorado Secretary of State.

And in October, Julian sued his cousin, Leonard Cordova, who runs two Chubbys Bubbachinos restaurants and has franchised the rights to a third. Julian has claimed in Jefferson County District Court that Leonard is illegally using and profiting off of the Chubby's name. "My grandmother wouldn't do it," Julian says. "I'm a lot more aggressive than she is, so I registered the names to try and protect her. Since doing that, I've gone after people who were operating without authorization."

Julian worked in Stella's kitchen growing up. He remembers sleeping on bags of beans in the pantry while his mother, Stella's daughter-in-law, worked the register. "I'll tell you, if our family would have acted like a family, then Chubby's would have been way up there, like Chipotle," he says. "We would have been all over the world."

In 1986, Julian, then nineteen, and his mother and aunt opened their own Chubby's at 89th Avenue and Washington. Later, he moved that property to 73rd Avenue and Federal and has since moved again to 83rd and Washington. "I don't remember if I asked my grandma's permission or not," he admits, "but I know she was cool with it."

And Julian says his grandma is cool with him handling the courtroom issues as well.

"Even though Leonard has Chubbys Bubbachinos and he says that's different, he's doing something that none of us in the family would ever have thought of doing," Julian says. "He's franchising without right; franchising something that he can't franchise. He has no authorization for that. It's a shame, everything that's happening.

"My goal is to shut down Leonard and to stop anyone from selling any franchise rights. I'm trying to do right by my grandma," Julian insists. "She raised me, and I would never hurt her in any way, shape or form. I'm spending my money to make sure things are right for her." If he wins the lawsuit, Julian vows to split whatever money he gets with his grandmother in whatever manner she deems fair.

But Danny isn't confident in that outcome. He's supporting the lawsuit because, as he puts it, "Let him spend his money instead of ours." But Danny still has misgivings about Julian over an incident involving a house Julian owned where Stella was once a rent-paying resident. "I don't even want to deal with Julian," he says. "I don't want to deal with Leonard. I want my attorneys to handle it."

Leonard Cordova, for his part, says he's doing something completely different.

Raised primarily in California, Leonard also spent time in Colorado, visiting the Chubby's side of his family and learning the ropes as a prep cook in the sweltering kitchen. He began running a Chubby's offshoot in 1999, at the corner of First and Federal, where he still has a restaurant. Julian had a stake in the property, and the two worked together, eventually reaching an agreement that the Federal location was Leonard's and the Washington Chubby's was Julian's. The cousins teamed up for a spell, helping oversee what they viewed as a mutually beneficial stake in the Chubby's dominion, opening Chubby's restaurants here, closing them there (both disagree as to the frequency of such behavior). But as is often the case in the extended Cordova clan, things turned south and the two parted ways.

"The Chubby's on 38th, they kind of have a bad thing against me," Leonard says. "They don't want me to tell anyone I'm affiliated with them. That's why I came up with Chubbys Bubbachinos. That's the name of my restaurants. I'm not saying I'm the original Chubby's, but you get the same experience, same great taste, and I add a little twist. I took that burrito and threw it on the grill. No one else does that. And the chile is different. That's what I'm going to run with. I've got one in Brighton now, one at Evans and Tejon. I want to knock this opportunity out of the park. I'm stoked that my grandmother has given me this legacy, and now it's my turn to take it in a new direction."

That new direction includes a 99-cent menu, vegetarian options, brightly graffitied Hummers hyping the brand and, if all goes well, commercials on KBPI and television spots that will run on MTV. And Leonard's First and Federal location fancies itself as a sort of neighborhood hangout, with fliers on the walls of local hip-hop artists peddling their CDs.

"That's something on 38th and Lipan that has been lost — their camaraderie with the people," Leonard says, pointing out his annual Cinco De Mayo celebration, where he invites the entire community in to party. "They used to give people credit, they used to give food away to people who needed it, they were there for the neighborhood. A lot of that kind of went out the back door, and now the greed has kicked in.

"The family is fighting, and when my grandmother passes away, I hope everyone is ready for World War III," he adds. "It's going to be a real big mess."

As for the charge of Chubbys Bubbachinos profiting off the Chubby's name that his grandmother established, Leonard doesn't see it: "I'm not saying I'm the 'Original Chubby's Mexican Food.' I'm saying I'm 'Chubbys Bubbachinos Grilled Burritos.' Where do you get the similarity?"

Lunch hour, Friday, 1231 West 38th Avenue. The hinges on Chubby's Burger Drive-In's door are getting their exercise. A sea of day laborers, construction workers, giggling high-school students and businessmen await a Chubby's lunch — served between two paper plates stapled together — that will stick to their ribs for the rest of the afternoon.

Blocks away, Stella Cordova is at home, handling a greeting card that she uses to smack the top of one of her cat's heads when it gets too close. Alert, smiling and dressed in her best, ornate rings encircling her historic fingers, she ponders what one should order if one only had a single opportunity to eat at her Chubby's. "Chile fries, smothered Mexican hamburger" is her succinct answer.

Danny, in his bathrobe and groggy, stirs his coffee, bored. He was at Chubby's until three this morning. But when the subject of the future of the original Chubby's comes up, Danny's eyes light up with excitement. "We're trying to make our place bigger," he says. "We already have the plans drawn up. The attorney says that as soon as this mess is cleared up, we can start franchising out of 38th and Lipan. We'll start fresh and expand the empire from there and spread Chubby's the way it should spread. The way it should have been from the beginning, before everyone just plundered."

Danny's enthusiasm increases as he rattles off his dreams of employee uniforms, a dining area, an outdoor patio. But Stella seems disinterested. She nods her head at Danny but offers no further comment. Maybe she knows that any courtroom drama will no doubt be protracted and ugly. Maybe she knows there's no way to change what has happened in the past. Maybe she doesn't want to change it. So she grins and bears it.

She listens to Danny — and to Julian, who comes over almost every day now to update her on the legal proceedings. And she tries to say no to her great-grandchildren, who hit her up for cash for DVDs (not going so well, she reports).

But what she most enjoys is working at Chubby's.

So tonight Stella Cordova will head over to 38th and Lipan around 6 p.m. as she always does, and she'll sit behind the counter, right next to the register; she'll stuff $100 bills into her lockbox, and she'll watch her Chubby's feed a city.

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Adam Cayton-Holland