Hospitality & Tourism  June 3, 2024

Vecinos: Good neighbors with good eats

SEVERANCE — If you’ve never been to Severance, you probably have never seen Vecinos Mexican Grill and Cantina. But if you’re a fan of green chili, chances are, you soon will.

Vecinos — Spanish for “neighbors” — is one of the fastest-growing restaurants in Northern Colorado. Over a two–year period from 2021 to 2023, it saw revenues increase about 23% to $800,000.

Much of it was due to keeping some legacies alive in the Severance area, said co-owner Kristie Melendez, who shares the title with her husband, Mario. A lot was due to the green chili dishes served with affordable prices that make small-town restaurants thrive.

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“We make our green chili fresh every day, … starting with the pork and onions,” Melendez said. “Everything is handmade, I’m a big stickler for that.”

And there’s where a great tradition is being carried on. 

Melendez, a fourth-generation Windsor native, was good friends with the owner of Windsor’s Señor Jalapeño restaurant, Denise Ortega (Dominguez). In fact, along with Melendez’ husband, Mario, they were all 1979 graduates of Windsor High and had attended the same schools since elementary grades.

“I grew up in a house that’s about a mile from here,” Melendez notes.

When Ortega passed in 2020, her family asked Melendez to take over the restaurant, where many of her own children and extended family had worked. She adopted much of the menu, including the green chili recipe, but reopened as Vecinos in April 2021.

“Now her sister, her niece and her grand niece all work here,” Melendez said. “Our customer service is important: Our servers know their customers, when they walk in the door they are pouring their drinks and making their appetizers.”

The mainstay customers often know each other, as well, often sharing tables when they run into each other at the establishment. Melendez caters to these customers with her specials, as well: Taco Tuesdays, kids eat free on Thursday, and assorted half-priced margaritas and food coupons.

Which is where Vecinos has a not-so-secret weapon that has helped it spur growth: Melendez is also the owner of Smart Marketing, which produces magazines and maps for multiple municipalities in Colorado.

The marketing company is also involved in direct-mail couponing, which Melendez uses for her restaurant. She is well versed in social media, as well as direct mail, and makes use of Pirate Radio to even out that marketing.

Making Melendez even less secret, is the fact that she is both a past mayor of Windsor and the past president of its historical society.

Still, the restaurant business has its own up and down, Melendez said. She noted both minimum-wage laws and inflation have been difficulties that have to be dealt with, but she also has to take into account her customer base.

“You can price yourself out of the market — I’ve got  a guy who eats here almost every day,” she said. “So I try to bring in more business.”

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