The parent company of Casa Bonita, a Mexican restaurant known for its indoor cliff-diving shows other entertainment features, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The Lakewood, Colo. restaurant, owned by Phoenix-based Summit Family Restaurants, had been closed since the start of the pandemic, and recently had been losing more than $10,000 per week, according to an income statement in its bankruptcy filing.
The filing shows that the company owes about $355,000 in rent and about $175,000 in payroll taxes. It also received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of totaling nearly $1.6 million and a Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan of $150,000.
In total, Summit listed liabilities of about $4.4 million, and assets of just under $3.7 million. In a financial statement detailing its most recent eight-week period through March 22, the company cited zero income and expenses of $85,139.
Ron Dowdy, treasurer of Summit Family Restaurants, said the company hoped to reopen again by the end of May.
“The landlord was very accommodating, but the landlord reached a point where they could not be accommodating anymore,” he said of the reason for the bankruptcy filing.
The restaurant was a local landmark with a capacity for 1,000 customers who entered the restaurant through a cave-like tunnel and emerged into a tropical décor that had a waterfall and diving pool as its centerpiece. Diners were entertained by divers leaping off platforms of various heights, as well as by various arcade games, mariachi bands, puppet shows, a magician and live skits featuring a gorilla-costumed performer.
“People either love it or they hate it, but a lot of people have fond memories of it,” said Andrew Novick, who launched a GoFundMe drive about a month ago in an effort to support the restaurant’s reopening, in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.
The Save Casa Bonita fundraiser has generated more than $20,000 in donations so far, which Novick said could be used to support local investment in the concept. The campaign has a goal of raising $100,000.
Novick, an electrical engineer from Denver who considers himself the restaurant’s “No. 1 fan,” began putting together a local consortium of restaurateurs and other interested parties last July. He said he believes the restaurant could benefit from hands-on, local ownership, which could implement new entertainment features and experiment with the menu.
“It’s already an immersive experience,” he said. “That’s kind of a buzz word now, but they have been doing it for 50 years.”
Dowdy said Summit is not interested in taking on additional investors at this time.
The concept was founded in 1968 in Oklahoma City by entrepreneur Bill Waugh and expanded to Tulsa, Okla., and Little Rock, Ark., although the Lakewood location, just outside Denver, is the only one still in existence.
It was at one time affiliated with the Taco Bueno restaurant concept and was owned by CKE Restaurants, the parent of the Carl’s Jr. hamburger chain, which spun the restaurants off to Star Buffet, the parent of Summit, in 1997.
Star Buffet also owns the Four B’s restaurant chain in Montana and steakhouses in Texas and New Mexico.
Novick said he’s not sure yet exactly how the money he is raising might be used, but said it will be refunded if it does not go toward the restaurant’s reopening.
“We are not just raising money to give [the current ownership],” Novick said. “We are raising money to have a local voice.”
In addition to its local popularity as a family-friendly destination for special occasions, the restaurant gained nationwide notoriety when it was featured in a 2004 episode of the animated TV series “South Park.”
Novick said the concept is an iconic Denver-area institution that has not changed much since it first opened. Customers ordered and picked up their moderately priced food — most entrees were priced in the $12-$15 range — at a counter and took it to their seats on trays.
Novick celebrated his 300th visit to Casa Bonita in 2019 with a large party at the restaurant in which he supplied some of his own entertainment — perhaps a preview of the future of the concept, if he and his partners succeed in influencing its future operations.