Louis Lucio began his restaurant career at his parents’ Weld County pool hall and has since opened a string of successful Mexican restaurants along the Front Range.

Armadillo owner adds links to the chain 1999 Bravo! Entrepreneur - Outlying Communities

Louis Lucio, owner and sole shareholder of the ever-growing Armadillo restaurant chain, believes that the Armadillo’s explosion into a $20 million business is a result of his belief that “it’s not a profession, it’s a lifestyle.”

“You have to like people,” Lucio said. “And you must like a variety of events, which might include fire alarms, thievery, broken pipes, a customer with a heart attack or a time when 500 people show up and you’re not prepared.”

Lucio’s youth prepared him for the restaurant lifestyle. His parents, Joe and Lucy Lucio, owned a pool hall called The Armadillo Club in LaSalle that served 3.2 percent-alcohol beer.

“Then they got a liquor license, and in 1970 started serving food for lunch,” recalled Lucio. “But weekends, it was predominantly a dance hall. That’s why it was called The Armadillo Club — it was more of a nightclub. I started bartending for my father at that time.”

In 1972, Lucio’s father left the business to pursue real estate, and Louis and his dreams took over.

“I pulled the pool tables out, stopped the dancing and focused on the dining aspect,” he said. “We started with 19 booths and, back then, I used to wait tables, bartend, assist in the kitchen — everything. Then it got busy enough I had to hire a staff.”

Word spread throughout Northern Colorado about the Armadillo’s authentic Mexican cuisine. While Lucio and his parents were born in Weld County, his grandmother is originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, and his grandfather from Monterey, Mexico; many of the restaurant’s specialties are family recipes.

“Our Menudo,´ said Lucio, “which is my grandmother’s recipe, is simply the best — I hear it all the time from people who know it. Otherwise, I’m a basic enchilada person. Give me beans, tortillas and green chile, and I’m happy as a clam.”

In 1979, The Armadillo opened its Fort Collins location to immediate success, and they “did it with no advertising,” remembered Lucio.

“The first nine years served as a learning experience for what I was doing, and then Fort Collins provided me the information and motivation for the future, to really move forward,” he said.

What he wants to do now is keep the momentum going. The Armadillo recently opened restaurants in Parker and Northglenn. A Loveland location is set to open soon and, sometime this winter, another will open near Denver’s Southglenn Mall. Lucio is also in negotiations for locations in Pueblo and Avon.

“We’ll easily open five locations this year,” Lucio said, “and then next year, I want to slow it down and look at the big picture. It’s like, åWhere’s Waldo?’ != I say that a lot. You can’t lose sight of the details, the burnt-out light bulbs ä it becomes more important with each restaurant that we open. But you first must see the whole picture.”

The “big picture” is a phrase applicable to both Lucio’s personal and professional commitments. Before his life took a turn to turning over tables, he’d planned a very different career.

“I was going to be a child psychologist,” Lucio revealed. “From 1970 to 1972, I was taking six credits a semester because I was already involved with Armadillo, seven days a week. It took me two years to finish my senior year. Then I started my master’s and realized I couldn’t keep it up with the workload I had at school.”

He’s seen to it, however, that the day-to-day doesn’t take over the åbig picture’ of helping children. The Armadillo is a major contributor to the Greeley Boy’s Club.

“It’s mostly Hispanic kids that go there,” Lucio said, “and that’s part of the reason we got involved. But you can never go wrong when it’s children != they’re our present and our future.”

The Armadillo’s future is now headquartered at a new corporate office in downtown Denver, situated beneath the company’s high-profile restaurant at 15th and Platte streets.

“That place has a lot of potential,” Lucio speculated, “with REI opening soon, and our proximity to Ocean Journey and the Pepsi Center.”

Lucio’s Northern Colorado roots have not prevented him from plunging into the Denver-area community: The Armadillo is a sponsor of SKIFIESTA, and Lucio belongs to both the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m especially proud of my work with Denver’s Hispanic Chamber,” he said. “They’re a growing force of Hispanic businessmen that facilitates scholarships, and their working consciousness always keeps the Hispanic community in mind.

“If you don’t take care of your own, who else will?” Lucio asked. “In my own way, I contribute to the well-being of Hispanics. I’m bilingual, so I can help my employees through a lot. Just today, I helped someone negotiate a down payment to buy a home. I do my part on an individual basis.”

Six of the Armadillo’s main chefs, all originally from Mexico, have been with Lucio from the very beginning, 28 years ago, he said.

“Many employees have been with me from the start,” Lucio explained. “It’s rewarding to see people grow into a career. One man started as a busboy 26 years ago, and he’s now general manager of one of our restaurants.”

Lucio is “very flattered and totally humbled” to be a Bravo! award recipient, and proud of the success that the Armadillo is enjoying. Ultimately, he’d like to expand internationally and “take this company as far as my abilities and the abilities of those who work with me can take it,” he said.

“Paris is my favorite city,” he confided. “If I could have an Armadillo on the Champs-Elysees — now that would be success.”