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Santiago’s, risky business pays off
(Photo courtesy:

By Joshua Pilkington

Twenty-five years ago Santiago’s gave way to its humble beginnings

Hispanic Heritage Series
Part VI of VI

Restaurants in the United States continue to be valued contributors to the nation’s economy as well as its workforce. Owning a restaurant, however, continues to be risky business.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first three years of operation. After five years, that number climbs to 75 percent, which could be a deterrent for venture capitalists.

Those were the facts and figures facing Carmen Morales when in 1990 she decided to open a restaurant that would specialize in fresh, Southwestern fare.

“When Santiago’s opened its doors in 1990, there were three important items that I firmly believed had to be implemented in order to set us in a league of our own,” she wrote in her recollections of Santiago’s beginnings. “The first was that all of the food had to be fresh.”

The freshness of Santiago’s has only been part of what has taken the risky investment into a Colorado staple over the last two decades. Now in its 25th year of existence the dine-in, take-out establishment has grown from a humble, hole in the wall in Brighton to a name brand by which all other Southwestern foods are compared.

“I told my friend about a place where he could get some good green chile,” said Alex Morales as he remembered the best way to describe just how important Santiago’s is to Colorado. “He said to me, ‘on a scale of one to Santiago’s, how good is it?’ That basically says it all, no? Santiago’s is the barometer by which all other styles are measured.”

As we said before, freshness is just one factor that led to Santiago’s rise. The main ingredient, however, is the green chile.

“It’s the best hot green chile in town,” said proud Denver native Russ Davis. “It’s an addiction. I once was on three quarts a week. The fact that I moved away from Bridge St., was the only reason I went down to a quart a week.”

When she describes how Santiago’s came to be, Morales focuses on humility and hope.

“The mentality was: ‘we only have one chance,’” she said. “When a customer enters the restaurant, he or she is greeted with a friendly face and the food is fresh, good and made with care.”

As for the humility factor, Morales added that it can be found in the name, which is anchored to faith, not self-promotion.

“It was a humble approach to not name the restaurant after oneself, but to name it after a saint,” she said. “After all not all new businesses are successful and we would need all the help we could get.”

They got plenty of help and a lot more. Santiago’s opened its name up to franchise opportunities and grew to 13 lucky locations scattered through the metro area as far north as Boulder and extending south to Castle Rock.

“There is actually one really close to where I work in Englewood,” Davis said. “So I may be going back on three quarts a week.”

As for the chile, it’s a recipe that has stood the test of time, according to Morales.

“Our chile was made by my mother Rachel Morales,” Morales said. “She would roast jalapeños on the grill and we would peel them. Then she would portion it out into small quantities and freeze it so my father would be able to eat chile all year round.”

With the Santiago’s label available in King Soopers, Safeway and Super Wal-Mart stores in the Denver area, the rest of Colorado can enjoy the Santiago’s flavor all year round as well.

For a Santiago’s location near you visit





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