Cafe Society

Bubba Chinos owner Leonard Cordova makes changes in his business plan

Two years ago, Leonard Cordova -- founder of the homegrown Bubba Chinos chain and one of the Cordova family members claiming to hold the original, iconic green chile recipe that his grandmother, Stella Cordova, introduced at Chubby Burger Drive Inn more than four decades ago -- had grand plans to expand his empire throughout not just the Rocky Mountains, but also to the West Coast and beyond. At that time, Cordova was franchising the rights to the Bubba Chinos name at a furious clip, and he had more than ten restaurants open and a number in the works. In recent weeks, though, the momentum has slowed: Just a couple of weeks after a franchised Bubba Chinos was evicted from its downtown location, the Bubba Chinos at 1600 East Colfax Avenue outlet, rolled over into a restaurant called Fresh Mex. Same owners, same employees -- but no Bubba Chinos connections.

The location at 3000 South Federal Boulevard has also closed its doors, Cordova says, at least until he can find new franchisees to take it over. See also: - The colorful Bubba Chinos empire is expanding - Bubba Chinos serves up authentic "Chicano cuisine" - Bubba Chinos evicted from downtown location

"I've learned a lesson," he adds. "We're going through growing pains. When we open, get people all excited, and then when we have to close, it makes us look like we're failing. I don't like that, and it's not good for the brand."

The closures, he explains, have come as a result of franchisees licensing the Bubba Chinos cheaply and then not investing necessary capital to keep them running. In the case of the downtown location and the spot on South Federal Boulevard, the business owners neglected to pay bills. Other locations broke with the Bubba Chinos brand, changing the menus and, in some cases, the recipe for green chile.

"People invested nothing so they had nothing to lose," he says. "It just sucks. I learned that quality is more important than getting my name out there."

And he notes that he's personally on the hook for some of those franchisee mistakes, including outstanding bills at the downtown location, which gave him the wake-up call he needed to make some changes.

Cordova is no stranger to conflict surrounding his business. When he opened his first restaurant at 160 Federal Boulevard in 1999, he used the name Chubby's Bubba Chinos until legal battles with his family finally forced him to drop the Chubby's from the name (though he still claims to have the original green chile recipe).

Now the owner is doing what he can to put these tiffs behind him to get things back on track: He's upped his franchise fee to a level he believes will bring in only serious restaurant operators, and he's standardizing his procedures across the chain to ensure all recipes and menus are the same. "It's important that every restaurant is clean, consistent, providing good service and paying attention to details," he says, adding that he's also streamlined how he approves locations and put a mandatory menu in place.

Seven restaurants have survived under his new standards: the original location plus the restaurants at 39th and Wadsworth, 49th and Kipling, 56th and Federal, 88th and Pecos, Brighton, and a new spot at I-70 and Washington, which will come on line in May.

As he cleans up what he's built, Cordova acknowledges that he's looking for investors who can also advise him on how to grow. And if he finds them, his ultimate goal remains the same: to establish a number of restaurants here and then spread his green chile far beyond Denver, starting with the Coasts.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk