On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Casa Bonita’s closure, a mysterious “re-opening soon” note was posted on the business’ website after a group of dedicated fans decided to take matters into their own hands by launching an online fundraiser.
“We would love to bring it to local ownership and local operations,” said Andrew Novick, a Denver artist and Casa Bonita fan since childhood. For years, he has given unofficial tours of the Lakewood destination to curious visitors. He also just wrapped up an annual art exhibition curated in its honor.
Novick and a group of Denver restaurateurs, event producers, artists and musicians launched the “Save Casa Bonita” fundraiser over the weekend. Though they’re not related in any way to Casa Bonita’s parent companies, Star Buffet and Summit Family Restaurants, the fundraisers are a concerned group of longtime fans looking to have a say in the institution’s future.
Among the members are My Brother’s Bar owner Danny Newman, Jelly Cafe owner Josh Epps and Mermaids Bakery founder Diana Ayala.
“We just want to make sure we’re in the mix,” Novick said of their combined interest in preserving Casa Bonita for years to come. “The history to us is really important. But also we all are professionals, and we don’t necessarily work for free.”
Novick has never been on the payroll at Casa Bonita, but he does know former employees and has kept in touch with them over the last year, he said. During the pandemic, the 47-year-old institution faced criticism over its treatment of employees and one job applicant.
In April 2020, some Casa Bonita workers said they had been left in a lurch with paychecks bouncing immediately after the restaurant’s COVID-19 closure. By October, the restaurant was facing a lawsuit by a world champion cliff diver who claimed he encountered age discrimination when applying to work there.
Summit Family Restaurants and Star Buffet CEO Bob Wheaton as recently as November said that the business would still be reopening as soon as “legally possible.” And this week, the restaurant’s website featured a new message: “Casa Bonita is re-opening soon!”
But Novick and his coalition are still worried about their beloved landmark, especially in light of its legal and financial struggles.
The group set an initial goal to raise $100,000, which could put them on a path to securing a business loan or purchasing the intellectual property — if Casa Bonita’s ownership is willing to entertain the idea.
“If we need to negotiate with Casa Bonita (ownership), then we could. If we need to negotiate with the landlord, then we could,” Novick said. “If we have some funds, we have at least a chance to have a seat at whatever table there is.”
Ultimately, Novick says he’s worried about a number of possible outcomes for Casa Bonita, and he knows that now is the time to do something to prevent any one of them from happening. He believes the historic restaurant could reopen exactly as it was, a “bastion of cultural appropriation,” he said, or else it could sell to a new, disinterested owner and change concept entirely.
“If somebody signs a lease and starts gutting Casa Bonita history, it’s too late,” Novick said. “We’re not going to be able to come to the table then.”
So he hopes a fundraiser and, ultimately, money can start the conversation. “What we just did might have shaken up the whole thing,” Novick said. “We want the community on our side.”
And if it doesn’t pay off? The group has pledged to refund donations of $100 or more, minus GoFundMe fees, if the money isn’t used in the next year and a half.
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