Longform

Smothered: The Saga of the Chubby's Empire

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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."

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Adam Cayton-Holland