Colorado History

My First Restaurant Job: Crossroads Cafe at Stapleton International Airport

"Little Rich" is a well known figure in the Denver food scene who got his start in hospitality as a busboy in 1973.
"Little Rich" is a well known figure in the Denver food scene who got his start in hospitality as a busboy in 1973. Richard Schneider
Richard "Little Rich" Schneider is known to many as the "tortilla savant" thanks to his role running Raquelitas Tortillas, one of the oldest wholesale tortilla companies in Denver, with his brother Raul DeLaTorre, and Raul's wife, Mari. From its factory in RiNo, Raquelitas produces tortillas and chips for over 1,500 businesses, including many local eateries. But Schneider's connection to Denver's food scene goes back to childhood, when he was hired at his first restaurant job at age thirteen.


Where: Crossroads Cafe at Stapleton International Airport

When: 1973-1976

About the place: Back then, Sky Chefs (now called LSG Sky Chefs) pretty much ran all the restaurants and snack bars at airports. At Stapleton, there may have been a little kiosk with snacks like popcorn, but Crossroads Cafe was the only restaurant option. It was almost like a Denny's type of place — a coffee shop with some big U-shaped counters at the front where people could eat. It also had a dining room with a whole wall of windows where you could look at the concourse and watch planes taking off and landing; you definitely knew you were at an airport.

How I got the job: I was sixteen years old for three years! I remember wanting to start saving for my first car — an immaculate 1972 Chevy Blazer that I wish I still had today. At the ripe age of thirteen, my dad got me an opportunity to interview to be a busboy at the old Stapleton International Airport’s Crossroads Cafe. You had to be sixteen years old to work there, so I fibbed about my age, tried to act older than I was, and right then and there, from such lofty heights, I kicked off my eventual career in hospitality.

What I did: I worked clearing tables, but things would really get interesting when we would get those notorious Colorado blizzards that would cancel hundreds of flights. At the gates, they'd give out vouchers for the restaurant, and instantly the cafe would be slammed by literally thousands of tired, hungry and frustrated international travelers — a wave of humanity would come. We were taught that we may be the literal face of Denver to many of these travelers, so we needed to be extra nice to “make Denver look great." I always enjoyed that challenge, even though many times in these blizzards I would work from open to close, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

What I learned: Delivering customer service in such a busy, high-volume restaurant quickly teaches you to prioritize and instantly re-prioritize tasks, to work as a seamless team composed of varied ethnicities and languages, to develop really thick skin and know that although we may take the brunt of rudeness from customers, it's not personal.

I think working hard when you are young sets a tone, and that most successful people started work at an early age. Working in a restaurant when you are young will give you people and teamwork skills unlike any other profession. You simply can’t learn these skills online or virtually.

Funny thing, even today, almost fifty years later, I still have a huge connection to Denver’s airport dining, supplying many of the restaurants with tortillas and chips. The company I worked for back then, Sky Chefs, is a current customer of Raquelitas today — we supply them with wraps and nacho chips that they take to 7-Elevens all over Colorado, proving one of the most valuable lessons: It always pays to be nice to people. You never know when your paths will cross again!

My most memorable experience: I was an ornery prankster, always trying to have little nuggets of fun and a chuckle in the middle of the madness.

I remember a dishwasher demanding that I make him a strawberry shake, and oh, yeah, I did! I put in extra strawberry to make it really red so he couldn’t see the nearly full bottle of Tabasco sauce I added in there too. Wouldn’t you know it? He actually liked it, and drank the whole thing.

It was the ’70s so obviously we had hanging planters around the restaurant, and since I was usually the first one in every day, I would love to put an empty rubber glove hanging out of the basket to look like a hand was crawling out. During setup, waitresses would always go grab it out and then gently scold me, saying there was no hand in the glove and that it didn’t fool anyone. So later I inserted pickle spears into each finger. Think of what a pickle spear feels like for a moment — very much like a finger, right? When a waitress grabbed that glove, you could hear her scream all through the restaurant!

My favorite prank of all time was when we got our silverware in small narrow boxes, about the size of today’s cell phones but about three inches deep. I would take the box top off, fold a napkin and cover the bottom of the inside of the box. Then I'd make a small hole and insert my middle finger in there, strategically placing ketchup around the base of my finger. On a newbie's first shift, I would wait until one of their tables left and tell them the guests had left the box behind, saying, "Well, let's see what's inside!" Then they'd gently take off the top revealing what appeared to be the bloody finger, which I'd wiggle a little. That one got shrieks every single time!
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