Lindsay Awards 2016: One Smart ‘Cookie’
By Reggie Ellis
lindsay – Sixty percent of restaurants close in the first three years of business. Even fewer restaurant owners make a successful return to the industry after closing. Probably no restaurant has ever closed and come back more than a decade later to become the best business in town. But none of those were owned by Refugio “Cookie” Rios III.
In less than two years, Cookie has reopened El Patio restaurant, 123 W. Honolulu St. in Lindsay, after being closed for 11 years, has managed to rebuild his customer base, start a catering arm of the company and, on Jan. 28, receive the award for Lindsay’s 2016 Business of the Year.
“I was absolutely excited when they came to the restaurant to announce the award,” he said. “Even better, the restaurant was full and most of my family was there.”
Cookie originally opened El Patio in 1991 but closed the blossoming restaurant in 2001 in order to renovate the aging building. The roof was leaking, there was no central heating and air conditioning and the electrical system had to be upgraded to handle the demand. He also secured a business loan from the City to do a major seismic retrofit to the concrete foundation, ceiling supports and brick walls.
Less than a year into the project, the housing market started to take off and his father, Refugio “Junior” Rios II, became ill. Junior asked his three eldest sons to help him keep up with the demand. It was decided that the family business, Los Rios Construction, was the priority to help his father complete projects in one of the most competitive housing markets he had seen. Never giving up on his dream, Cookie spent the next 10 years retrofitting the restaurant on the side. Doing most of the work by himself or with one other person, Cookie said every little problem turned into a major setback in terms of time.
Since re-opening on July 10, 2015 Cookie said El Patio is already at the Google searches and listed as a five-star restaurant on Yelp with 1,700 Likes on Facebook and 1,000 on Instagram, two promotional mediums that didn’t even exist when the restaurant closed. Its popularity online is already translating into customers walking through the door.
“My sister Ana [Ayers] is like my marketing director,” Cookie said.
More importantly to winning the award, Cookie said Ayers never turns down a request for community involvement and makes sure the restaurant helps in any way it can, typically in the form of manpower. Despite being a small business, Cookie said he routinely sends employees, often paid employees, to help at nearly every event on the Lindsay calendar, from Orange Blossom Festival in the spring to the Posada event in the winter and car shows, quinceaneras and food fund-raisers like the Menudo Cook-Off and Rib Cook-Off in between.
“We are active in the community, and I think the more active you are the better it is for your community and your business,” he said. “If everyone participated in just one thing, than everyone would be better off.”
And the Awards Banquet was proof of that philosophy. El Patio catered the meal for the Jan. 28 event at the Lindsay Wellness Center, serving a surprisingly un-Mexican meal for a Mexican restaurant, including stuffed roasted chicken breast with roasted garlic cream sauce, tri tip, garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed squash. It also marked the first major event El Patio has catered since it reopened.
“We had the doors blown off on Tuesday [Jan. 31],” Cookie said. “A lot of people that came to the awards dinner didn’t know that we did other styles of food or that we catered.”
In addition to catering, Cookie has also started instructor-led paint nights at the restaurant. For $45, attendees get appetizers, mixed drinks, a canvas, paint and a class led by Lindsay native and COS art professor Victor Cervantes. The restaurant was already serving as a Cervantes gallery as the renowned cultural artist’s works and murals are displayed on every wall of the eatery. Now more of his paintings will hang on the walls as he completes them during the paint classes.
“Where else can you have a professor hold art classes and get a meal,” Cookie said.
In Lindsay, El Patio serves award winning art, food, customer service and community involvement. For more information, Like them on Facebook or at www.ElPatioLindsay.com or call 559-562-3400.