The Grill Celebrates 50 Years of Green Chili
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
People often ask what it takes to start and sustain a successful business in the highest city in North America: Leadville, Colorado. While there are endless “how-to” models to guide hopeful entrepreneurs, the process of creating a successful venture at 10,200 feet in a remote mountain community is, well, different. For those who thrive – and yes, there are plenty – perhaps it’s best described as a list of secret ingredients, similar to the one that the Martinez family has been using for decades to make their delicious green chili.
So as The Grill Bar and Café in Leadville marks a half century in business this month, Leadville Today looks back at the hard work, dedication, and love of community, that when mixed together makes the perfect dish that keeps locals, and visitors, coming back for more. NOTE: Mark your calendar for Saturday, April 18 for the BIG 50th Anniversary Celebration at The Grill – see details below.
“Necessitas guantes, Katalina.” I wasn’t paying attention. I was swept up in the experience. It was 1994; and the intoxicating smell of roasting green chilies that floated up to meet the cool, autumn air, had my head spinning far above The Cloud City. It was harvest time, and this year, I had been taken into the fold.
Every fall since he opened The Grill in April 1965, Robert Martinez’s garage had become a chili-roasting factory, re-supplying the stock for his famous restaurant.
The Mexican music provided the soundtrack, as the festive stage was set: the cooks slowly turned the steel mesh drums over open flames; Robert’s wife Rose made homemade tortillas in the kitchen, and the Coronas chilled in a nearby bucket of ice.
I had ignored Robert’s suggestion of wearing gloves so that my gringa hands wouldn’t burn from the fresh chili juice. I was finally fitting in with los cocineros – the Hispanic cooks – and I wasn’t about to stick out by wearing los guantes.
But it didn’t take long. No, it didn’t take long at all, for my fair, freckled fingers to start burning. I mean, really burning!
“Guantes, Katalina,” Robert said, placing the gloves on the table, as he shook his head in regard to my insistent need to impress him. My latest attempt to infiltrate my way into this wonderfully different culture had been exposed!
In 1949, Robert Martinez moved to Leadville to work the mine, eventually putting in over 21 years at Climax in the crusher, and as a welder. During that time, Robert married his first wife, Dora and had five children: Robert (Jr.), James (a.k.a. Santiago), John, Kenny, and Beverly.
However by the mid-’60s the local mining industry was experiencing its first round of down-sizing, and city leaders were scrambling to promote Leadville as a tourist destination. It was a time of change. And Robert Martinez was a part of that, starting The Grill Bar & Cafe in April 1965 with wife Dora, his sister Adelia, and her husband Mateus.
As with most beginnings, The Grill’s was humble, with seating for only 25 people. It was originally established as a bar, with food service slowly added over the years. Both families lived on the premises, with Robert’s family setting up living quarters on the south side of the building. After its first year of operation, Robert and Dora bought out their partners, and ran the place with the help of their five children.
“I remember pushing a hundred-pound mop, when I was barely 40 pounds myself,” said son James Martinez who now owns and operates the restaurant with his wife Linda Duthie. In those early years, all the kids had chores to do, before and after school; it was Robert’s way of establishing that tough work ethic in his children, one of the essential ingredients to a successful Leadville business recipe.
As the restaurant’s menu grew, so did The Grill’s reputation for delicious, authentic Mexican food. People from around the region made the eatery a must-stop while passing through Leadville. For others, it became an annual migration, especially for Aspenites, who still come by the carload once Independence Pass opens for the summer season on Memorial Day weekend.
And while that famous green chili recipe has remained the same over the past 50 years, other things did change. The family business outgrew the original bar space, eventually turning the former living quarters, into a bigger dining room for their expanding clientele. Along with changes to the business, came more personal shifts. Robert divorced and married a second time, to Rose, who became an intrinsic part of The Grill’s history, carrying on the family-owned business.
It was back in 1993 that I joined the ranks at The Grill for two years as a waitress/bartender/cook. I can clearly recall the first time I served the no-frills patriarch a plate of his own recipes. Placing the enchilada dinner in front of him, he nearly sent me running for the door, as he loudly protested the number of tomatoes I had put on his plate. Here I was trying to impress my boss, instead I got a five-minute lecture – in Spanish – about the price of tomatoes, and why he wouldn’t be able to keep the doors open if I continued with such extravagances.
Back then, I was challenged by his wife Rose to Friday night waitressing contests, to see who could tally the highest sales. She usually won, watching me run frantically around the dining room, as her years of experience would leave me in the dust, paying up on our bet.
Robert’s sons John and Kenny, along with daughter Bev were very involved with the restaurant during this time. I can still hear the clank of horseshoes as Robert and Bev practiced in the pits off the back deck. The father/daughter team competed on a regional circuit, and generally returned with just as many tournament victories, as well as those famous chilies, from their travels.
While all of Robert’s children took great pride in The Grill, their father’s dream wasn’t always their own; but each contributed to its success. In 1994, Robert passed away after complications from surgery. It was a shock to everyone; he was only 62. His premature death left the family and Leadville community grieving, and The Grill’s future, uncertain.
Then fortunately, in 1996, Robert’s son James and wife Linda, bought the 41-year-old establishment. Under their management, The Grill’s most recent decades have seen the same hard-working business ethic, along with improvements that ushered the family-run business securely into the 21st century. The original bar has been beautifully restored, computers installed to modernize the ordering and inventory system, and the dining room’s decor is regularly updated, including original artwork from Linda Duthie, who is an accomplished painter.
“We’ve kept up-to-date with modern trends and technology without changing recipes or traditional cooking methods,” said Duthie. In fact, in the back half of the house, not much has changed at all. Everything in the kitchen is still hand-cut and prepared in the “old school,” cultural ways. In contrast, in order to stay competitive, the restaurant’s marketing strategies in the front half of the house, include a website and social media engagement via their Facebook page.
The Grill now seats 100 people, and on a busy weekend night, it’s standing-room-only for the popular Mexican eatery. The menu has many of the items you’d expect for a typical Mexican meal – tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. And for gringos with a fainter palate, it includes some milder dishes, along with vegetarian versions. Today, The Grill uses 10 tons of fresh green chilies every year.
However, it’s The Grill’s famous stuffed sopapillas that keep people coming back for more. You won’t find these beauties on your typical south-of-the-border menu. Most people are familiar with sopapillas as a Mexican dessert – a fry bread, served with honey or covered in powdered sugar. However, at The Grill, they take the sopapillas, stuff all the goodies inside (meat, veggies and those famous green chilies), fry them until crisp and then bake the golden orbs to perfection, topping them off with a hearty ladle of that famous green chili. It’s a dish that literally bubbles up to greet you. But be careful, the plates are hot!
As with all good food, preparation is key. But most don’t seem to mind the wait, passing the time with good conversation, and plenty of award-winning margaritas. Which most nights, are served up by the-one-and-only Miles Duthie, Linda’s son, thereby establishing the next generation of The Grill’s familia. (Writer’s note: Miles threatened retaliation if he was included – especially with a photo – in this story, so BE SURE to tell him you saw it!)
Today, the restaurant employs about 20 staff members, full and part time.
“The staff becomes part of our family,” says owner Linda Duthie. “Over the years, we’ve watched as young servers grow up, graduate from high school, go on to college, and come back to work during their Spring and Summer school breaks.” Often times, these dedicated employees return as customers, with their own families. After all, The Grill is the locals’ place to celebrate everything from birthdays to graduations to anniversaries. But this month, this backbone of the Leadville community will be marking its own occasion.
On Saturday, April 18 – Founder Robert Martinez’s birthday – The Grill will mark their 50th Anniversary with a special Mexican Food Buffet for $15/per person. The Martinez family invites all of its loyal customers to come, join the celebration, and share their memoires of this incredibly successful Leadville business.
Mucho felicidades to this Leadville eatery that has proven the secrets of success for creating and sustaining a local business for five decades! Thanks for all your hard work and dedication , , ,and for that delicious green chili!
Regular customers should also note that The Grill will not be taking their regular “Spring Break.” You can find them at your service, straight through the summer, during their regular hours – Wednesdays thru Mondays (closed on Tuesdays) opening at 4 p.m.
The Grill is located at 715 Elm Street in Leadville. You can spot it from US Highway 24 South, by looking for the cactuses painted on the outside of their patio fence. Or just stop and ask; any local would be happy to give you directions for a mere margarita!