Casa Bonita in June 2022. | Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Turns out, running a restaurant is hard

Last summer was a simpler, more innocent time. It was, like, four COVID variants ago, some of us were awash in mac and cheese ice cream, and if you said the words “bear” and “Chicago” to me in the same sentence, what instantly came to mind was wandering into the Lincoln Park Zoo on my high school lunch break, or maybe my seventh-grade boyfriend.

Most importantly, the restaurant industry was in the process of being saved thanks to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In August 2021, the Oscar-nominated comedy impresarios behind South Park told Colorado Gov. Jared Polis that they’d decided to heroically swoop in to purchase Casa Bonita, the “Disneyland of Mexican restaurants” in Lakewood, Colorado, notorious for squeezing kitschy roadside attractions and bad food (save, perhaps, the sopapillas) into a frilly pink landmark.

Well, disaster was looming over our too-brief Pax Americana. Little did we know, we were heading into 12 months of more COVID, inflation, some scary Supreme Court stuff, rising fuel prices, a war, and an uphill slog to get Casa Bonita back open for business. And while gas prices seem to be going down and inflation seems not to be going up, at least in the U.S. this month, Casa Bonita is no closer to reopening.

In an interview with the Denver Post, Parker and Stone said that rehabbing Casa Bonita is a total shitshow, primarily due to years of deferred maintenance, comparing it to a really bad Kitchen Nightmares case.

According to Parker: “What we thought would be, ‘Oh this will be cool. We can buy this and open it and it’ll be around again,’ turned into ‘Oh this is going to be what we have to put all our money into and hope that it works.’”

Virtually no one, except for me in this publication one year ago, could have predicted that making six 22-minute cartoons per year would not easily translate into successful restaurant ownership. Restaurants are very expensive and difficult to open and run. That’s why instead of owning a restaurant, I copy edit stories about people who do. But I also don’t have several of the sweetest deals in television history, nor any Tony Awards for best musical, nor Bill Hader on my writing staff. In fact, I had to write this entire blog post on my own with virtually no help from Bill Hader at all. But that’s much easier than turning around a neglected cultural icon.

“Anyone else that’s said, ‘Oh I wanted to buy Casa Bonita,’ they wouldn’t have made it because this is going to cost so much and it’s really dumb,” Parker told the Denver Post. “We absolutely should bail and stop spending money, but we’re committed now.”

This isn’t to say no progress has been made. In fall 2021, Casa Bonita put Dana Rodriguez, a James Beard-nominated Denver chef, in charge of entirely revamping the restaurant’s food. The consensus is that the food at Casa Bonita has always been pretty bad, but Rodriguez has emphasized that she shares a goal with Parker and Stone to “change nothing and improve everything.” Meanwhile, as renovations are undertaken, Parker and Stone have retained Casa Bonita’s entire staff, paying them instead to work for Denver-area nonprofits, including We Don’t Waste, which salvages and redistributes so-called food waste. It’s either a pretty savvy PR move or a total change of heart from two guys who were climate change deniers until 2018. Either way, seems like a nice thing to do.

Or maybe they’re just really, really nostalgic about the idiosyncratic vestiges of growing up in Colorado. Recently on South Park — well, it’s too complicated to get into, but after a comedic series of events fueled by his venal sociopathy, Eric Cartman and his mother ended up moving into a hot dog stand that is shaped like a hot dog. “Weak, I live in a hot dog,” Cartman deadpans, after being squirted in the face with both ketchup and mustard. Truly, this show deserves the Peabody it was awarded in 2005 for “pushing buttons and envelopes with stringent social commentary.”

The hot dog, in fact, is another drawn-from-life Colorado landmark: the Coney Island Boardwalk in Bailey, which came on the market this spring with a $1.5 million price tag. Because it is a throwback roadside attraction with a prominent feature on South Park that’s beloved in Colorado, speculation began that maybe Parker and Stone would buy that one, too, now that they’d bought Casa Bonita. They are both venues, after all, so campily absurd that they resemble real-life cartoons already. And, arguably, “Isn’t real life so absurd it’s cartoonish?” is the central conceit in Parker and Stone’s work. And they’re, like, multimillionaires — makes total sense for them to buy a hot dog.

“I told Les Claypool (of Primus) about the hot dog and he [expletive] flipped out. He was like, ‘You have to buy that hot dog,’” Stone told the Post.

“I would love to buy the hot dog and put it in the parking lot of Casa Bonita,” said Parker. “I think that’d be amazing.”

But reality, it seems, has set in. Per Stone, “We just can’t take on another broken restaurant project right now.”

Of all the lessons one could learn from studying the restaurant industry, a very prominent one is, rich weirdos are probably not going to save it. As has been said (or sung, actually) on South Park, “Seasons change, time passes by.” Time will eventually fell many of our most-cherished now-decrepit childhood icons. Unless they’re billion-dollar cartoon franchises that celebrated a 25th anniversary this month with a two-night concert stand at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, I guess. Those appear to live on in infamy.

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