Carmen Morales founded Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant in 1990 in Brighton, where she was born and raised. Her green chile was a breakout hit, winning awards and fueling a statewide expansion. There are now 27 Santiago’s locations across Colorado, with more likely to come.
Santiago’s is currently in the middle of its 14th annual charity campaign. Since starting the program, the company has donated more than $650,000 to family-focused, grassroots nonprofits, including Colorado Hands and Voices, Judi’s House, and The Butterfly Program.
In a conversation with Crain’s Denver, Morales shared how she got into the food business, what it’s like to run a family-owned business, and how to maintain a family-first atmosphere across a growing chain.
Gaining experience, confidence
After high school, I worked for a company that provided caps and gowns to graduating high school kids. I was there for about a year. I’m a fast learner and quite the organizer, so after about two weeks in the backroom, they moved me to their office, doing accounting work. After that, I worked for the Adams County Department of Social Services and the Adams County District Attorney’s office, doing paternity applications.
All through this time, I never really thought about owning my own business. It seemed so far out of reach. You need all kinds of money to open a business, and I came from a family of 10 where there wasn’t extra money to even think about those things. Even college was so far out of reach.
Eventually I got a job working for the state of Colorado. I was part of a team that developed a manual on sensitivity to cultures that were different from your own. It was all about motivating youth, particularly minority youth, so I spent a lot of time with those kids.
After hearing myself tell these youth that they could succeed and encouraging them to feel that pride, I think I started to believe it myself.
Breaking into the restaurant business
In the late 1980s, my brother was working as a homebuilder. He had a heart attack and couldn’t do that anymore, so my sister and I decided to help open a restaurant for him in Greeley. We thought it would be easier than construction. It was called Alberto’s and it’s still around.
So, we were running it together, but it was a long drive for me out to Greeley, and I started thinking about opening my own.
I went and talked to my cousin – she owned her own business at a time when there weren’t a lot of minorities doing that. She told me, “Don’t force it,” and I remember thinking, “What the heck does that mean?”
I found a vacant building in Brighton, and I found out who the owner was. We worked out the entire sale over the phone. It was so easy, just like my cousin said. Sometimes you have to let things just come together.
That’s been my life ever since. If it’s to be, it’ll be.
Go for the gold
When we opened the first Santiago’s, I told all three of my employees, “We only have one chance. The service has to be good. The food has to be good.” It all just snowballed from there.
Now, we have meetings for all the owners of our franchises every other month. I tell them inspirational stories and I always try to relate them. God has given us this gift, I’ll say, it’s a gold mine and all we have to do is get the gold out.
We had one of these meetings recently and I told them this story about a carpenter who was just getting ready to retire. His boss asked him, “Can you build just one more house?” The gentleman didn’t want to, but he did it. He didn’t do a really good job, not his best work compared to the other homes he had built. When his boss came to see the house, he gave the carpenter the keys and said, “This is your house.”
It’s a story about trying your best always. Perfection is a lofty goal, but we’re going to try.