Kelly Martinez, left, laughs as she sits with her sister, Stephanie McKee, middle, and her cousin, Annette Hopkins,
at the Farmers Inn, 109 3rd Ave., in LaSalle. Their family has been running the restaurant since 1970. (Joshua Polson)
Restaurants come and go with dizzying regularity.
Try a place, like it, return … and it might be closed for good. Not even the exploding national chains are immune,
but the smaller independents — and especially family-owned restaurants — are especially prone to the whims
and perils of people’s stomachs.
Yet in LaSalle, only four miles south of the University
of Northern Colorado in Greeley, two standbys serving Mexican fare both have been fixtures since 1970.
On the north side of
town, the Farmers Inn is a family-owned operation started by brothers Vince and Cecil Vigil. Vince, who was in charge of the
kitchen, died in 2007. As Cecil, who mostly tended to the business side, battles Alzheimer’s, he and Vince’s widow,
Flora Vigil, are the official co-owners. The family soldiers on in the restaurant with cousins Annette Hopkins (Vince and
Flora’s daughter) and Kelly Martinez and Stephanie McKee (Cecil’s daughters), in the forefront as Hopkins’
brother David Vigil serves as the kitchen manager.
A few blocks away, at the south end of LaSalle, the Armadillo has been
through ups and downs after its founding by the Lucio family. At one point, there were 17 Armadillo restaurants in the state,
mostly doing well, including one in downtown Greeley from 1995-2012. In 2002, the ownership company at the time, Armadillo
Club Inc., went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Now there are two Armadillos remaining — one in Aurora
and the original in LaSalle. Greeley resident Jerry Schott said he has owned the LaSalle restaurant since 2013 and is co-owner
of the one in Aurora.
A third popular LaSalle Mexican restaurant, Don Juan, sits between the two others. George Orozco
opened it in 2004, and although it hasn’t been around nearly as long, it has its champions, too. The original Farmers
Inn was in that building before moving to the current site in 1980.
Owner Jerry Schott behind the bar at The Armadillo in LaSalle. (Terry
Within an area of a few blocks, there are a lot of enchiladas and margaritas served every day in LaSalle.
After a lunch rush at the Farmers Inn this week, the three cousins sat down to talk about what they consider their
fathers’ legacy — and their desire to carry on. They all began working at the restaurant in their early teens.
was 14 when I started,” Martinez said. “I bused tables, I did dishes. But what I learned is loyalty and working
“Our father didn’t deal with slouching,” McKee said of Cecil Vigil. “He expected you to
work harder than anyone else.”
Their secret to lasting 40 years?
“Family,” Hopkins said. “Consistency.
Loyal customers. And hard work.”
It becomes a common question from former Greeley residents or UNC alumni to current
residents: “Been to the Farmers Inn lately?”
The Armadillo in LaSalle. (Terry Frei)
Martinez noted, “We’ve
got a lot of regulars, a lot of farm people, and I think they’ve kept us going. And some has changed. We have a lot
of gas and oil people from the area coming in.”
“We have people who went to UNC and they come back 30 years
later and talk about the old Farmers Inn,” McKee said. “They’re bringing their kids in here.”
said she spoke with several such groups the previous weekend.
“They let us know they’re sending their kids off to
college here,” she said. “Or they said they went to college here and the last time they were in LaSalle was when
they graduated in 1980. I had another group like that for a wedding. They said it tasted pretty much the same.”
that involves a carefully guarded secret family recipe — sans flour and thus gluten free — for green chile.
ask. They won’t tell.)
Since Vince’s death and the onset of Cecil’s illness, the challenges have increased
for the cousins.
“That’s been the hardest thing for me,” Martinez said. “I could go to dad and ask, ‘How
do we do this or that?’ Now we’ve kind of had to do that on our own. Thank goodness he taught us a lot.”
the wake of all that, the question often has been broached, whether by potential buyers or simply the curious: Is the Farmers
Inn for sale?
And the answer, at least now, is an emphatic no.
The Farmers Inn in LaSalle. (Terry Frei)
“We’ve worked too hard at this,” Martinez said.
“This is our fathers’ legacy. We’re not going to let that legacy go. … As long as the people keep
coming, we’ll keep it going.”
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At the Armadillo down the street, Schott sometimes helps tend bar
when he’s spending the day there. He divides his time between there and the Aurora Armadillo he co-owns. As a manager
for the Armadillo company, he witnessed the expansion from a cult favorite to a Colorado chain. The Armadillo once was in
Fort Collins and Longmont, plus all over the Denver region, including in the Larimer Square area — unfortunately, in
advance of Coors Field’s opening — and through the suburbs.
“I kind floated around to all of them at one
point,” Schott said.
Then came the contraction before Schott took over the original Armadillo in LaSalle. At that point,
he also owned the Northglenn restaurant but bowed out of that.
“The lease went up on that building,” he said. “They
didn’t want us there any more.”
The LaSalle Armadillo is packing in customers now.
“I think the biggest thing
that has hurt and helped us is the gas and oil industry in the area,” Schott said. “It seems like every time we
had an oil boom — and there was one back in the ’80s — it really helped our business. That kind of went
away and we slacked off.
“And when the gas and oil started again a couple of years ago, that really helped us. The
guys had a lot of money and they liked to spend it.”
And now the wait for a table can be over an hour on the weekends.
seen improving business here for the last three years,” Schott said. “We were showing 20 percent increases for
a while, over the same period from a year ago, and you don’t see that in the restaurant business ever. It’s slacked
off a little bit because I think we’ve kind of hit that maximum, but I’m still seeing increases. So I guess the
sky’s the limit.”
He said he hopes to take advantage of the boom, perhaps with building improvements, and
stay with it in LaSalle.
“It’s in my blood,” he said. “Once that kind of stuff’s in your blood,
you can’t get it out. Ask any restaurant person, they’ll tell you the same thing.”
At the Farmers Inn,
the cousins would agree.