Lakewood native Karen Rensink remembers Casa Bonita from the other side of the pass bar. She was one of the original servers when the restaurant opened in 1974.
“I was a sophomore at Bear Creek High School in 1974 when the Denver location of Casa Bonita was opening," Rensink said. "There was so much buzz about the 'Pink Palace' and every high schooler in that area was lining up to apply for work there...me included. The only problem was that I was still only 15 and too young to be employed."
Rensink had a workaround for that.
"Back then, all that was needed to 'appear' to be 16 was the possession of a Social Security number, which I, fortunately, had since birth due to a gift of stocks from my grandfather," she said. "I flashed that card and bam, I was part of the inaugural class."
Rensink said all the employees were brought in for training before the restaurant officially opened.
“When we went for interviews, it wasn't even finished yet on the inside," she said. "
Rensink described the process as mechanical and very structured from taking orders to delivering food to customers.
“You give your order to the cashier. She'd call it into the back kitchen. They'd start preparing and it's a total assembly line preparation situation," Rensink said.
The food eventually made it to the serving windows where the waitresses were waiting.
“There were two windows — there was one for the Mexican side and the one for the American food side. They’d throw the food on your trays," Rensink said.
She added that someone like a “seater” would seat the person and the waitress would bring the trays of food.
Diners used a mini pole flag to request drinks and food refills — some of their meals were all-you-can-eat. As a waitress, Rensink’s job was to carry trays, watch for raised flags and to bring refills.
She took on a few different roles in the restaurant.
“I started off working as a seater, then a waitress and after dropping a couple of trays, I switched to the line in the kitchen," she said.
She explained that the floors were tile and slippery, and Casa Bonita was a large place. These elements combined with the fast pace and lower pay made Rensink rethink her initial role.
“I probably worked maybe six months out on the floor, and then I switched to the back kitchen because it paid more per hour,” she said.
But, the back kitchen had its own challenges.
“It was hotter than hell back there, a crazy fast pace…but it paid a few dollars more an hour than the cushy floor jobs," she said. "I was rolling in the dough for a kid my age and spent it all on gas for my car and clothes from The Stage and Fashion Bar.”
Resink also shed a little light on the reason why the food was so infamous.
One issue was some of the food was frozen, like the enchiladas.
“You had to report to the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings to make enchiladas for the week," she said. "We'd make hundreds and hundreds.”
Rensink describes an assembly line where the employees would line up, each with ingredients. She would spend the morning stuffing, rolling and placing enchiladas into pans.
The pans would go into what Rensink called “the big refrigeration thing,” where they stayed until someone ordered one.
Rensink added that the tamales were from cans. She admitted to eating from the American food side during most of her tenure at the restaurant.
“They had a fried fish. Who knows what part of the fish it was," she said. "But it was really delicious. It had a coating on it and a grilled pineapple ring on top. By and large, that's what we lived on.”
Looking back on her tenure at Casa Bonita, Rensink said she has good memories.
“It was a great place to work with so many of my friends employed there," she said. "There was always an after-work party somewhere. It has been fun being an alum and finding out that friends I have made as an adult also worked there as their first job. An instant bonding experience. Some of them even met their future spouses on the job.”
Rensink said she "can't wait for the new incarnation of Casa Bonita to open."
Stay tuned to the Jeffco Transcript for news on the opening of Casa Bonita.
Those with stories and photos of the old Casa Bonita should send them to Jo Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.