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Connie’s Mexico Cafe celebrates 50 years in business

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013, at 4:56 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 26, 2013, at 2:21 p.m.

If you go

Connie’s Mexico Cafe

What: Celebrating 50 years in business

Where: 2227 N. Broadway, 316-832-9636

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, closed Sundays

Carmen Rosales said she feels tired just thinking about it.

It was 1963, and she was 15 years old. Her parents — Rafael and Connie Lopez — had just opened their little Mexican restaurant on North Broadway.

Carmen’s job was to roll the balls of homemade tortilla dough her mother prepared into rounds. Day after day. Ball after ball.

She was so tiny, she had to stand on a Coca-Cola crate to reach the surface where she rolled the dough. Later that day, the tortillas would be filled with beef, turned into burritos and sold for 25 cents apiece.

That was 50 years ago.

This month, that restaurant — Connie’s Mexico Cafe at 2227 N. Broadway — turns 50, a rare feat for any family-owned business, especially a restaurant.

And they’ve been an eventful 50 years, Rosales said, filled with the deaths of her parents, the births of her five children and seven grandchildren, a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her, and three separate car-vs.-Connie’s crashes that each demolished and temporarily shut the restaurant down.

They’ve also been filled with thousands and thousands of tacos, enchiladas and beef burritos — made Connie’s way.

Fifty years later, Carmen still runs the restaurant with the help of her children, who say they are ready to take it over when Carmen says the word.

But Carmen isn’t ready yet.

She still comes to work every day to greet customers, run the kitchen and deal with vendors, all the while surrounded by her girls, her grandchildren and framed photos of Ralph and Connie, who built a business that has sustained her and her family for years.

“I’m doing this because the restaurant is their legacy,” she said. “I want to continue it out of respect for what they were able to do. I know it was difficult back then for a Hispanic couple to start a business like this, but they did it.”

Carmen was Connie and Ralph’s only daughter — adopted when she was very young.

The family relocated from Texas to Wichita in 1952, when Carmen was a small girl. Her father was a barber by trade, and the family immediately joined the St. Margaret Mary Catholic Parish.

Connie would cook for church fundraiser dinners back then, and her abilities in the kitchen earned her fans.

“From then on, people would come up and tell Mom and Dad, ‘Golly, Connie, golly, Ralph, you need to start a restaurant.’ And the seed was planted.”

A small bar named Chata’s went up for sale on North Broadway — in the spot right next to the current Connie’s location — in the early 1960s, and Ralph bought it. He and Connie ran their restaurant out of the tiny space, equipped only with bar stools, until the early 1970s, when the El Patio restaurant next door moved. The Lopezes were able to take over that much bigger space. The restaurant still operates there.

Carmen spent her teenage years with the tortilla dough.

“Boy, did I work hard,” she said with a laugh. “I gave up a lot of sock hops and football games and wild parties.”

She had no intention of spending her life in the restaurant. Carmen had dreams of attending law school at Washburn. But her parents urged her to stay.

She got married in 1970. Soon after, her first daughter, Monique, was born.

Working in the restaurant gave Carmen the flexibility to have Monique — and the four girls who followed her — with her while she worked. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was common to find Connie and Ralph hanging out in a corner booth of the restaurant with five little girls running all around. Now and then, Ralph would take the girls for walks along Broadway while Connie and Carmen kept the restaurant going.

As the years went on, Carmen played more and more of a role and remembers spending much of the ’70s convincing food vendors that she was just as capable of handling the business as her father was.

Those years made her the tough businesswoman she is today, she said.

“Men would come in and look for Dad, and I’d say, ‘He’s not here. Can I help you?’ ” Carmen remembers. “But they wouldn’t deal with me. In a way, it made me tougher and more courageous and patient above all else. Eventually, I got people to respect me.”

In the mid-1980s, Carmen took over operation of the restaurant, and her parents retired. She and her then-husband, Jim Garcia, grew the business and raised the girls, all in one spot.

Carmen and Jim divorced in 1993. Ralph died the following year.

Then, in 2002, Carmen suffered a brain aneurysm, and doctors told her family that her odds of surviving were slim. She underwent three brain surgeries in three weeks but fought her way back quickly. Today, she is healthy, and there’s no visible sign of her close call, she said.

Her mother, Connie, died in 2006. At the time, Connie was the great-grandmother of two girls and of 1-week-old Estevan Rafael, her first great-grandson, named after his late great-grandfather.

Carmen’s medical scare helped mend post-divorce family rifts that had caused Carmen to become estranged from daughters Monique Pope and Sonia Garcia. Today, all is well between mother and daughters, she said. Monique lives in Wichita and works for a renewable energy company in Colwich. Sonia, the second eldest, lives and works in New York City. Third daughter Delia Garcia served in the Kansas House of Representatives from 2005 to 2010 and now works for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C.

And youngest daughters CiCi Renteria and Adele Jordan, along with close family friend Carla Banuelos, live in Wichita and help Carmen run the restaurant day to day.

Connie’s has seen difficult times through the years, Carmen said, struggling to find consistent help and recovering from three separate accidents in which vehicles plowed into the building after hours. The first involved a semi in 1976. The second two — in 1982 and 2004 — resulted in the deaths of the drivers, who lost control of their vehicles on North Broadway and hit the building. After the last accident, Carmen was able to update and remodel the restaurant when she rebuilt it, getting rid of the dark wood paneling that had lined the dining room for years.

Connie’s also has attracted its share of celebrity visitors. Jimmy Carter ate there when he was a presidential candidate in the 1970s. In the mid-2000s, actor Harrison Ford dined on a big beef burrito. Photos of him flanked by the Garcia girls hang all over the restaurant today.

The most popular dish is that big beef burrito, Adele said, followed closely by the flour tacos, still prepared Connie’s way — with peas and potatoes mixed into the beef filling.

The best part about staying involved in the restaurant, said CiCi — mother of Estevan Rafael — is seeing her children and nieces and nephews repeat her childhood.

The grandkids always are in the restaurant, coloring and watching television in the back while their mothers run the restaurant out front. The older ones often greet customers and deliver chips and salsa to tables, something CiCi and her sisters always did, too.

CiCi said she often thinks about how happy her grandparents would be if they could see how far their restaurant — and their family members — have come.

“I know they would be ecstatic to see us taking over helping my mom out and being so involved,” she said. “And I hope to see my children’s children move on and continue it.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter (@DeniseNeil) and check out her blog at blogs.kansas.com/dining.

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