Looking back over the past year, most restaurateurs will agree that enduring a pandemic — with all of the concerns over public health and safety layered on top of operating restrictions and forced closures — has been the toughest time ever for owners. But add to that a fire and then frigid weather that froze the pipes, and you have an idea of what Nick Quintana went through before finally getting back to serving guests. But in order to do so, he had to start a new restaurant, Sazón, which just opened at 6105 South Main Street in Aurora's Southlands retail center.
Quintana was the managing partner at Lucha Cantina at the Red Ram for about a year and a half before he took over full ownership of the Georgetown restaurant in January 2020. He only had a couple of months to put his stamp on the Mexican eatery before he had to close the dining room last March because of the pandemic, and was looking forward to reopening at partial capacity at the end of May. But then another disaster struck: Lucha was located inside the historic Red Ram Inn building, which was gutted by a fire that started in the basement in the early-morning hours of May 15.
Quintana had multiple surveillance cameras in the restaurant, and footage captured the beginning of the fire, which burned slowly in one corner of the structure for nearly two hours before spreading. "If it hadn't been for COVID, somebody would have noticed, because they would have seen the glow from the window, and maybe we could have saved the building," he says.
But with early curfews around town and no one working in the restaurant, the dining room was destroyed. Still, the 140-year-old building was apparently built to last, and the main structure was left intact. In addition, the famous rathskeller — which had been visited by celebrities and dignitaries ranging from John Denver to John F. Kennedy — was "virtually untouched," Quintana points out. "Even the wine glasses and napkin rolls were in place at the bar."
Fortunately, the video footage also showed that the fire was likely started by old electrical wiring and that kitchen carelessness was not the culprit, putting Quintana's mind at ease.
After the fire, he relaunched Lucha on the street right outside the restaurant in a newly purchased food truck — a rarity in Georgetown that required special authorization from the city. "I knew it was the only way to maneuver through the summer," Quintana explains. "We opened on July 4, and the community just poured with generosity. ... The community and everybody reaching out to us — that's what put me into overdrive."
The food truck proved successful during the warmer months, and a COVID-based grant, along with money from a fundraiser started by Georgetown residents, helped keep Lucha staffers employed. But tourism was down, and when cold weather hit, business slowed considerably. "We did as much as we could through December, and we even dabbled a little bit in January and February," Quintana continues, adding that he kept the truck running as long as he did in order to support his employees. "But it was difficult once the cold weather started freezing our water tank, and the propane lines flow slower, too."
With four kids at home in Aurora, Quintana knew that had to keep going...somehow, somewhere. At the end of 2020, he met with the management of the Southlands retail and entertainment development, and soon signed a lease. He opened his new restaurant, Sazón, on March 1. It's "a modern Mexican and Latin experience," he says. "It's experience that we want to create. I really like to get to know our locals and customers and teach our staff that our regulars are our VIPs."
More than a month in, Sazón is still in soft-opening mode, Quintana notes, since new signage has been slow to arrive, some of the interior decor needs finishing touches, and hiring has been difficult because of the pandemic. "This past year has been a hurry-up-and-wait game," he explains. "Everything gets delayed. We opened quietly because I didn't want to overwhelm our staff...but I'm so proud of them and our chef."
The new restaurant is set amid a sea of national chains, and Quintana thinks that Sazón's food and service will help the independent eatery stand out. "I like to consider us 'polished casual,'" he says. "But I try to make sure our service and menu are elevated. I prefer to be a step above."
Once Sazón has found secure footing, Quintana will again focus on Lucha. "Just because we opened here in Aurora doesn't mean we've forgotten about Georgetown," he points out, adding that he plans to have the Lucha food truck back in business in May, with food offered five or six days a week after Memorial Day. The restaurant, though, will have to wait until repairs are completed on the building, which has been slow going. "If I were a betting man," he says, "I'd hope to be open for Cinco de Mayo next year."
Quintana lives only five minutes from his new restaurant, but insists he misses the daily commute to Georgetown (even his five-year-old son liked the drive, he says). Once he's on the road again, he'll have plenty of time to think about what he wants to call his revived restaurant. He knows that he'll want to keep Red Ram in the name, to honor the old building that made it back.
Lucha means "fight" or "struggle" in Spanish, but he won't need to keep Lucha in the restaurant's name in order to remember what a struggle the past year has been. Quintana is ready to keep fighting.
Sazón is open from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call 303-627-5741 or visit sazonexperience.com for menus and details.
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