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Casa comeback: original owners revive landmark restaurant, plan expansion of hamburger chain into Little Rock.

WHEN BILL WAUGH of Dallas learned that Casa Bonita had closed abruptly, he saw an opportunity to redeem the past.

He and his wife, Frances, will work not only to revive the Mexican restaurant as "Casa Viva," but also to introduce their successful hamburger chain -- Burger Street -- to central Arkansas with about five locations.

The couple created the concept of Casa Bonita and opened the Little Rock restaurant in 1969, a year after the original debuted in Oklahoma City. Two more restaurants, in Tulsa, Okla., and Denver, followed in the early 1970s.

In late 1981, Waugh sold the Little Rock Casa Bonita as part of a package of 60 restaurants to British conglomerate Unigate PLC. Besides the four Casa Bonita restaurants, the Taco Bueno and Crystal's Pizza & Spaghetti restaurants that the Waughs developed also were sold.

A former manager of the Casa Bonita in Little Rock sent Waugh a newspaper clipping about the landmark restaurant's sudden closing June 9. The day after he got the news, Waugh hopped on a plane to Little Rock for a sentimental journey.

It has a happy ending, with the couple reclaiming the Little Rock restaurant they have always had an emotional attachment to. The restaurant, located in the Village Shopping Center at Asher and University, will reopen Monday, Aug. 2, as Casa Viva.

"I always regretted selling the company," Waugh says wistfully. "And that's why we're real excited about getting this |restaurant~ back."

After selling their restaurants, the Waughs started the hamburger chain, which is similar to Rally's and has 20 locations in Dallas, Fort Worth and Tulsa. The Waughs decided to expand into central Arkansas now that they're re-entering the market with Casa Viva.

Waugh says all the features that made Casa Bonita a Little Rock institution are being revived. The only major change is the restaurant's moniker because he was unable to secure rights to the Casa Bonita name.

The 15,000-SF restaurant will seat about 500 and employ 140 full- and part-time employees. It will have an annual payroll of $800,000-$900,000. Casa Viva will operate from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays and from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. on weekends.

Workers have been putting in long hours, making $250,000 worth of restorations and improvements to return the restaurant to the condition of its heyday. Back then, Waugh says, annual sales of $2.5 million and profits of $500,000 were the norm.

Peak Years

At its peak, the Little Rock Casa Bonita was the highest-volume Mexican restaurant in the country, Waugh says. That distinction later went to the Casa Bonita in Denver, which Waugh says has $7 million-$8 million in annual sales.

Three Dallas artists have painted colorful, Spanish-themed murals throughout Casa Viva and added numerous other flourishes to create the feel of a Mexican village, complete with nooks and crannies that unveil surprises at every turn.

Even the murals hold surprises, with drawings of University of Arkansas Razorbacks hidden in the artwork. The Razorback theme will be extended outside the restaurant, where a fountain is being built that will have a bronze boar as its centerpiece.

Another notable addition is a 65-foot tower that will be built atop the restaurant, and the building's exterior will be restored to look like a Mexican restaurant.

Casa Viva also will bring back the table flags that indicate customers need service and the "treasure room," where children can buy souvenirs with play money. Children also will be drawn to the restaurant's large arcade filled with video and skill games.

Perhaps most importantly, Casa Viva will bring back the buffet line for which the original Casa Bonita was known. Waugh says meal prices will be a throwback to the past, too, with all-you-can-eat dinners for $5.45 and specialty plates for $3.75.

"We'll be dropping back to a more affordable price and planning on the volume working for us," Waugh says.

Under Unigate's management, Casa Bonita raised meal prices and began selling alcohol -- changes Waugh disliked. Casa Viva won't sell alcohol, mainly because the Waughs like to hire enthusiastic teen-age employees, who can't serve alcohol.

"We've always been big employers of teen-agers," Waugh says. "They've always been the heart of our operation."

Also, Casa Viva wants to be known as a family restaurant, which is another reason Waugh says alcohol won't be served.

Alcohol, he says, "doesn't fit with what we're doing -- anymore than it fits at McDonald's or Disneyland."

Even with lowered prices and without revenue from alcohol sales, Waugh anticipates Casa Viva will have about $3 million in annual sales.

Popular Place

During the 1970s, Casa Bonita was one of Little Rock's most popular restaurants. Kids loved the festive atmosphere, and parents liked the fact they could feed their family for a moderate price.

But over the years, prices climbed and the addition of alcohol caused the restaurant to fall out of favor with many families and church groups.

By 1992, Casa Bonita had lost its place as one of Little Rock's perennial top 10 Little Rock restaurants in food revenues. According to city tax records, the restaurant's food revenues in 1990 were $2.25 million. By the end of 1992, that figure had dropped 20 percent to $1.8 million.

Waugh says he can reverse that downward trend by bringing back all the things that originally drew Arkansans to Casa Bonita.

Since he repurchased the restaurant, Waugh says, there's been a reunion of sorts going on. Former employees, who worked for him as teen-agers and are now parents, have called or stopped by to express their excitement about the restaurant's comeback.

Other former employees are rejoining the staff of Casa Viva -- people such as Rick Cunningham, who started at the Little Rock Casa Bonita in 1969 at age 16.

Cunningham will be the restaurant's assistant manager. Dave Yonge, now a manager at the Oklahoma City Casa Bonita that Unigate is closing soon, will be Casa Viva's manager.

Casa Bonita's longtime guitarist, Ignasio Gomez, known as "Nacho," will be back, and also returning will be Rudy Morado. Morado started at Taco Bueno (the Waughs' first restaurant in Abilene, Texas) and later worked for them at Casa Bonita in Little Rock.

Morado has a reputation for assuming whatever duties are needed. Over the years, he taught himself to play the guitar and accordion to provide entertainment at Casa Bonita. He says he'll revive his Mexican sheriff routine.

Waugh hopes the opening of Casa Viva will be an opportunity to bring former employees back. He encourages anyone who once worked at Casa Bonita to call him at the restaurant or stop in and identify themselves.

"I'm hoping that a lot of them will come back in and we can have a little reunion," he says.


* With $250,000 in renovations, Casa Bonita will reopen as Casa Viva on Monday, Aug. 2.

* The Waughs also plan to introduce their successful hamburger chain, Burger Street, to central Arkansas with about five locations.

* In its heyday, Casa Bonita had annual sales of $2.5 million and profits of $500,000.
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Title Annotation:Casa Bonita
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 2, 1993
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