More than an extreme makeover for former Western Sizzlin’ on 8th Street
It's not every day that the owners of a chain restaurant nix their franchise and start up a brand new eatery, all their own.
But that's what's taken place at the site of the former Western Sizzlin' at 221 S. Eighth St. Rip and Janice Blackwood, longtime Colorado restaurateurs who had owned the Sizzlin' franchise for the past five years, shut down for a couple of months this fall, then reopened their doors this month with a new look, new food and a new name: Rita's Fajitas.
Good-bye to the wide-open, buffet-style, “warehouse” look (as Rip put it) and predictability of the old restaurant. Hello to metal palm trees, colorful murals, hubcaps on one of the ceilings, fajita plates that are carried to patrons over live coals, an outdoor patio bounded by cattle guards and a '56 Buick serving as a salsa bar. The logo, a sombrero-wearing single-engine pilot, is a nod to Rip's background as a flyer during the Vietnam War and a family interest in planes.
There's no question about a boost to the economy. Western Sizzlin' employed about 50 people; the Rita's Fajitas payroll is about 100.
“I've got this entrepreneurial bent that's whacko,” Rip joshed in a recent interview, when asked what drove the change. Then he added, more seriously. “But I'm game for anything if I think it's got merit.”
As for leaving the “security” of a national chain, he commented, “There's no security in any of it. I'm not saying that to be flippant. Every day you have to get up and prove yourself.”
In 30 years in the business, this isn't the first time he's tried originating a concept, he pointed out. A few have done well, and he's eventually sold them to others and moved on.
He's also had six different Western Sizzlin' restaurants during that time. The Blackwoods took on the Eighth Street Sizzlin' five years ago when they heard the previous owner “was going to shut the place down,” Rip recalled. “My wife and I were living in Denver, and said, 'What the heck.' ”
Running the operation got him thinking that the corner of Eighth Street and Highway 24/Cimarron Street was a viable commercial corner that needed a fresh idea. “Really, the concept (for a Western Sizzlin') was tired and old at this location,” he said. So the Blackwoods, who had bought the property in 2003, hired a Denver-area restaurant designer to help them brainstorm. It was from those discussions that the Rita's concept emerged.
Actually, a better word might be “evolved.” Rip concedes that other than his basic idea of a “frumpy little airplane” piloted by a “Mexican Betty Boop,” most of the eventual restaurant style developed on the fly under the guidance of his wife and daughter, Susie Kepler, with occasional suggestions from employees.
The murals are an example. One of the servers the Blackwoods hired, Katie Sweeney, had majored in art in college. Next thing she knew, she was painting scenes on interior restaurant walls.
The main room has the palm trees, as well as a variety of light fixtures and little Rita's/pilot logos hanging from the ceiling. It's also got multi-colored tiles (part of that resulted from a late search for a water line), plus a bar and a front desk made from doors hung sideways. There's also a dining room with a Western theme, another with a '50s theme (the one with the hubcaps) and one that's still under construction.
In all, Rita's offers 400 seats - about the same as the old restaurant. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner, with happy hours on weekdays.
“It's been a lot of fun,” Susie said of the planning stages. “Colorado Springs needs something fun.”
The response has been good, too. “People enjoy the place, and they're coming back,” Rip reported.
Nor is the restaurant's development over yet. It may never be over. There's that one room to complete, another mural to paint, more decorating to do, the patio to put in, and probably more brainstorms down the road. Definitely different from the old Western Sizzlin'.
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