We opened our first restaurant in 1987. When we started the work that September, we had no opening date in mind. I don’t even think we set a goal or a target date. We had no idea about the opening date because we really had no idea how to run a restaurant. We were winging it on all fronts.
By the time everyone was hired, the equipment was in place, the recipes were all tested, and everyone was trained it was Christmas Eve. We knew enough not to open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but we chose the next Monday and opened on the 28th of December.
I have written often about that opening night and how we were busy from the moment we opened the doors. That was the case for the next several decades. We have been blessed. Though by the time that first summer came around in 1988 we realized that our team needed a breather. Since we were so busy opening the restaurant back in December, and had no time for a Christmas party, we decided to throw one in July at a local water park.
We were about seven months into the new venture and things were going well. There is something about an opening crew of a restaurant that is different from every crew and team member that comes in the later years. It’s an indescribable bond with those who gather together and go through the very stressful experience of opening a restaurant. Maybe it’s bunker mentality, I don’t know. But those who have worked together in the 21 concepts I have opened over the last few decades have always become friends and remained close in later years.
That first crew was certainly no exception. I stay in touch with many of them to this day. One of them still works here. For that Christmas in July party, we hired a guy to come and cook barbecue, people swam, we had a lot of beer available, and there was a band. It was a blast, and it was the release everyone needed after seven months of stressful restaurant work.
Fast forward to 2021. We have been dealing with 18 months of a global pandemic. Certainly nothing that I have experienced in my 40 years in this business could even come close to the challenges we faced during Covid. We were blessed to have gone into that crisis with a strong crew, and very strong management leadership. Over the course of a challenging year, we did all the responsible things, and all the CDC’s recommended things, closed completely on a few occasions, and offered carryout-only options sometimes. We did our best to navigate the uncharted waters we were facing.
I am forever grateful for those who stuck with us and faced those challenges on a daily basis. Not only did we feed the few customers who were ordering food from the restaurants, but we delivered free and donated food to health care workers in the COVID unit at the local hospital every day for six weeks.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we closed our flagship and longtime restaurant— the one that we opened back in December of 1987— not knowing that it would never reopen. When it became evident that the former business model would not work going forward, we decided to take the Tex Mex concept I had been working on for several years and to put it in that space. It would also include a large outdoor patio space in which we would have to convert a concrete and asphalt parking lot with no trees or vegetation into a lush tropical environment. Despite record-breaking rainfall, we did it.
Opening a restaurant is one of the most challenging and stressful things anyone will ever do. There are so many moving parts and there are so many ways to drop the ball. Doing it with severe labor shortages during the tail end of a global pandemic raises the difficulty level even higher.
The team that worked with us getting this new restaurant open— with about 50% of the staff we needed to open a restaurant— are champions in my book. They worked long hours under stressful circumstances. Many dropped off. Some left to take advantage of the unemployment benefits and some left for other jobs. Some just retired altogether. The ones who stayed, the ones who endured, the ones who face the challenges head on against all odds, will always be celebrated in my book.
Last year, we weren’t able to have a Christmas party in December. Not because we had just opened a restaurant, but it just wasn’t safe to gather in our typical Christmas party fashion. So, we did what we did 33 years ago and decided to have a Christmas in July party for our team. As hard as that first staff worked getting that first restaurant open (and I love all those guys, still) it can’t even come close to comparing to what this crew has been through for the past 18 months. Even if you just look at the volume of business we were doing back then compared to what we do today.
I wanted to do something special for this crew. Last night a couple of the chefs put together a casual menu, a couple of bar bartenders stepped up to the plate and got behind the bar, we brought in a DJ, we shut the doors to the public, opened the bar for the crew, cranked up the music, and had a blast. About two-thirds of the team showed up. It seemed that everyone released a long, collective sigh of relief. It wasn’t meant to be an event where people could recharge their batteries— that was never the purpose, it was just a showing of gratitude— but I believe that is the purpose it ended up serving.
We have once again brought a crew together and opened a restaurant. They’ve joined forces with the team members who were already here, and both have been on the frontlines fighting through adversity, daily.
That original Christmas in July party back in the summer of 1988 was special. Sure, it was nice to show appreciation to that hardworking initial crew. But it was also at that event that I saw the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was standing across the room near the band. Her name was Jill Johnson. She had come with a friend of one of our managers. Technically, she crashed the party. A couple of weeks later I asked her out. A couple of years later, in 1993, I married her. She came with me to this year’s Christmas in July party. Maybe one of the team members this year will get as lucky as I did that year.
I am grateful to all the 10,000+ people who have worked for our company through the years. Each one played a part in getting us where we are today. But this current management team, the current crew in the back-of-the-house, and all the new and seasoned members in the front-of-the-house will forever have a special place in my heart.