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El Vaquero back to its old ways.

Byline: Joe Mosley The Register-Guard

Eugene business partners Sara Willis and Katie Brown can blame a slumping economy and their own bad timing. But they wholly understand that the combination requires a straightforward response: to remake their El Vaquero restaurant in its own image.

"The idea of bringing it back is a challenge," Willis said Friday. "But us being on-site, that's how we've responded. And I still totally love it - otherwise, we would have shut the door and walked away a long time ago."

The 120-seat restaurant and bar in the Fifth Street Public Market had a strong following when Willis and Brown publicly unveiled their plans in January to sell El Vaquero and their other three Eugene restaurants to concentrate instead on a fledgling manufacturing business - creating fresh juice cocktail mixers for airlines, hotels and specialty grocers.

Two of the restaurants have since sold - the Red Agave at 454 Willamette St. was purchased by its former general manager, and Zendo Cafe was sold as a space for a new business in the Public Market's food court.

But the cocktail mixer business - Zendo Cocktails - is largely on hold until a major airline partner returns to profitable operation, Willis and Brown said.

And they still own both El Vaquero and the Asado Latin Bistro, in south Eugene's Woodfield Station shopping center at 29th Avenue and Willamette Street.

"The desire to sell a restaurant and being able to sell a restaurant are different things," Willis said. "It's just like selling a house."

The restaurateurs had stepped away from full-time work at El Vaquero, hiring a high-end chef late last year and offering him a free hand at revamping the menu - which seemed at the time to be a move that would fit well with the recent upscaling of the Public Market's tenant mix.

Willis and Brown realize now that the market's new high-end focus hasn't helped their business - "even people that have money are spending less," Willis said - and the decision to move away from their eclectic original menu was a mistake. The new chef quit two months ago when informed that the old menu was returning, and Willis has gone back to the kitchen while Brown is again running the front of the restaurant.

Both plan on being there for the foreseeable future, and are hoping to lure back some of the customers who had bought into their original concept but have stayed away due to either economic reasons or the restaurant's changes.

"The feedback I got about some of the favorites being pulled off the menu (by the former chef) was that those were things that people absolutely came to the restaurant for," Brown said, citing such offbeat selections as macaroni and cheese, along with various items from the original list of tapas (appetizers).

"Vaquero was created to be fun," Brown says. "The whole idea about tapas is to bring people together around a table to have fun and share food."

The full menu of tapas is back, with small items ranging from $5 to $14, and large ones from $15 to $25. The restaurant also has returned its focus to high-quality steaks, along with such specialties as hand-made flour tortillas.

And the owners emphasize that although a longtime bartender has moved on, El Vaquero's wide-ranging bar menu remains intact.

"There's a perception in the community that the (Fifth Street Public Market) has gone through a facelift, and maybe it's more expensive," Brown said. "But we're here as one of the anchor tenants, to say we're affordable and approachable. You can come in here in your jeans and work boots."

Willis said the "snooty" label never applied to their restaurant, and she and Brown want to make sure their customers understand. "We never wanted to be that," she said.

Brown and Willis opened the first of their restaurants - the Red Agave - six years ago, and the Latin bistro's food menu and trendy bar quickly became popular.

They followed in 2005 with the 3,500-square-foot El Vaquero.

Brown and Willis - who have been friends since childhood - said they still intend to sell their remaining restaurants when the time is right.But they've learned that timing is key for such career shifts, and admit they misjudged the impact of the current economic downturn.

"It was a good lesson in putting the cart before the horse," Brown says.
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Title Annotation:Business; The restaurant's owners roll up their sleeves and get to work, reintroducing the full tapas menu and other popular favorites
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 24, 2008
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