I’ve been told that there are many options on the menu on the menu at El Noa Noa Mexican restaurant located at 722 Santa Fe Drive. However, as I’m an onion-allergic person and an avid foodie I’ve only ordered one. But I’ve had several times. As of 2009, I got written on The Denver Post for having eaten my 500th El Noa Noa bean burrito (smothered with red sauce).
After 42 years of Santa Fe Drive, it’s difficult to imagine the city of Denver with no El Noa Noa. However, it was difficult to imagine the city of Denver without breakfast King or an Denver Diner or as well as Annie’s Cafe, a Bonnie Brae Tavern or Racines -and now we’re here. It’s possible.
“The restaurant isn’t making profits,” said manager Vidal Banuelos, whose wife Leticia has the same name as the founders Raul and Hortencia Medina. “The direction of this company isn’t clear.”
The odds are stacked against The Banuelos family in this tidal chaos of COVID, supply-chain shortages, and rising inflation. The price of supplies and labor has increased. The couple do not have enough staff members to be open 24/7. In the wake of the housing market’s explosion, “property taxes in Denver are now astronomical,” Banuelos said. In addition, the costs of maintaining the property as well as liability and workman’s compensation insurance has all increased.
“Since the outbreak started our food prices have increased at an average of 35%. Since then we’ve raised prices 13 percent,” Banuelos said. “We do not like to raise prices because when people are aware of it, they quit and do not return. However, it’s so difficult to earn an income.”
To make the situation (much) worse even more difficult, the city has imposed the Banuelos call “a ridiculous” 5 foot walking buffer across Santa Fe between the sidewalk and the remaining parking spaces. The most troubling part of it all, as Banuelos pointed out, “is that the city charged us to perform the exact task that is harming our business through our tax burdens.” The purpose for the street plan is to reduce traffic and ensure pedestrians are safer. “But everybody hates these streets,” Banuelos said. “In my view it’s unfair to businesses.”
Many customers are returning to El Noa Noa, but not at pre-COVID levels. Due to the expense of performing live music, Banuelos had to suspend his popular live mariachi band in the year 2019. The three licenses for live music cost Banuelos an annual sum of $5,000. For many years, the massive band of family members walked the vibrant patio, which is now the mainstay of the company.
“If you don’t have the terrace,” Banuelos said, “we’re out of business. It’s as simple as that. When the patio is shut to weather conditions my sales drop by 40 percent.” Because of this, when winter arrives, Banuelos will be closing every day for two days.
El Noa Noa has survived in the end, he says, “because my wife and me have invested our hearts and souls into this business and work tirelessly every day to remain in business. Our employees are supportive of us. However, we are tired.”
The family’s lease expires in 2024 and Banuelos isn’t convinced it makes any sense to go on. He often gets stuck with the issue: “What am I even doing in this situation?”
“I am not trying to make lots amount of cash, however, I do not wish to make a mess of money too. The battle is never ending.”