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Santiago's serves up green chili, burritos fit for a saint

The restaurant is well into its second generation as a family business


Santiago's founder Carmen Morales (second from right) with daughters and company board members (from left) Suzette Olguin, Martina Casados and Rachel Wells. 

When Carmen Morales opened the first Santiago’s at a former Sonic Drive-In in Brighton in 1991, she dismissed the idea of naming the restaurant after herself.

“We’re better off naming it after a saint,” she recalls thinking, “because we’re going to need all the help we can get.”

Some 29 years later, the Mexican restaurant chain best known for its breakfast burritos and green chili boasts 28 locations along the Front Range and as far off as Sterling on the Eastern Plains. Of those 28 restaurants, 15 are family owned; the other 13 are franchises whose owners are either former Santiago’s employees or relatives.

Santiago’s is well into its second generation as a family business, as Morales and her three daughters – Martina, Rachel and Suzette, along with their husbands – Eric, Shawn and Thomas, respectively – are restaurant owners and make up Santiago’s governing board.

The business isn’t limited to restaurants. Santiago’s also caters (an order of 5,000 burritos for a United Airlines employee gathering required the mobilization of several Santiago’s kitchens but passed the burrito stress test). Santiago’s renowned green chili, made with the recipe passed down from Morales’ mother, is sold at grocery stores and other retailers throughout Colorado and parts of Utah and Wyoming. And Santiago’s frozen burritos are available at convenience stores.

The business’ namesake – Spanish for St. James – offers a glimpse into the higher purpose Morales had in mind when she opened the first Santiago’s in her hometown, 20 miles northeast of Denver. At the time, she worked for the Colorado Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, counseling youths viewed by others as unemployable.

“I thought, maybe with the rapport I have with them, they would work for me,” Morales says. “So I continued working for the state, and I opened up the first restaurant.” Her belief in the employability of those troubled individuals paid off, and other family members chipped in.

Three years later, Morales’ oldest daughter, Martina, left her banking job to open a second Santiago’s with her husband, Eric. Rachel, previously an engineer for IBM and Ford, opened a third Santiago’s two years later with her husband, Shawn. The youngest daughter, Suzette, was 5 when her mother opened the first restaurant in 1991. She says she used her college fund to open a Santiago’s with her husband, Thomas.

“It was so family-friendly that everybody knew the cooks as we were growing up,” Suzette recalls. “You could see how Santiago’s grew from not very many people knowing it when I was in elementary school, to people in high school calling me ‘Little Santi’ because they associated the restaurant with our family.”

The sense of family and community that inspired the first Santiago’s restaurant is still evident today. Santiago’s has donated well over $1 million to various causes, with the company’s charitable board members selecting at least one cause each year that resonates with them. Recipients over the past 15 years include the Children’s Hospital Colorado Burn Center; Education for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children; and There With Care, for families and children facing critical illness.

“A lot of the charities come from family experiences,” says Morales, whose brother was fatally injured years ago in an oil refinery fire and now is honored with a plaque bearing his name at that Burn Center.

Members of the third Santiago’s generation are either in high school or college, and while they’re encouraged to pursue their passions, Santiago’s charities are a way for them to remain involved until they decide whether the restaurant business is for them.

“Our charity has a separate board, so as our children reach adulthood, they become part of that,” Martina says. “Then they too will help us decide on charities and get involved, so on the charity side we are moving to a third generation.”

On the restaurant side, three qualities are enduring Santiago’s hallmarks: Northern New Mexico-inspired authenticity, fresh ingredients and affordable prices.

“I think we’ve made it possible for families to come to the restaurant more than once a week because of the portions that we give and the prices that we’re giving them at,” Rachel says. “You could leave our restaurant without spending $100 and feed your whole family and maybe even have leftovers for the next day.”

There is a fourth, perhaps obvious, ingredient that has propelled Santiago’s to this point and figures to continue doing so.

“Everybody who has met my mom has a strong connection with her,” Rachel says. “I think that’s what she’s given to all the owners. She says, ‘We only have one shot with the customer.’ And we really do try to live by that.” 

To see a complete list of the 2020 Top 50 Family-Owned Companies in Colorado, click here

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Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor is the editor of ColoradoBiz magazine. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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