When Steve Smalley talks about his customers, he gets a tear in his eye. He’s that thankful for the love and support from the community of Lafayette. In an industry that sees nearly 50 percent of new ventures close within the first year, it’s rare to find a restaurant that makes it. Even tougher is when a restaurant is forced to close and relocate after just three years in its first space. That’s what happened for Lunada Eatery and Cantina, but the result has been nothing but good news for Smalley and his partner, Chef Daniel Flores.
The original Lunada opened at the Lafayette Marketplace on South Boulder Road three years ago. “We had Jax as an anchor store to help draw people in,” Smalley said, explaining the events that led up to Lunada’s big move. “We had plans to have concerts in the back. We were really excited about it. It was mine and Dan’s first venture together.” The original space did well. Customers were drawn in by Flores’ fresh take on Mexican cuisine and returned for the friendly and laid-back atmosphere.
Things took a turn when the owner sold the shopping center to the Flatirons Church. The mega-church — the largest by attendance in Colorado and one of the fastest growing in the country — wanted to use the shopping center across the street from the church as office space. That’s when tenants started to move out and “it just got that empty feeling again and it went downhill from there.”
“They decided not to re-sign our lease,” explained Chef Daniel Flores. “We had already been looking for another space, and we were glad to find this one.”
Smalley echoed the desire to stay in Lafayette. “We feel we’ve invested into the city over at the other place and we didn’t want to leave. The growth is hitting Lafayette and we didn’t want to get pushed out.”
The new space is bigger, with a much larger patio and a bright and open feel. The pair commissioned local artist Breanna Benton to create bright, colorful murals on the walls and the dining area has a truly unique, eclectic, vibe thanks to inspiration from all over. “We go to the food show in Chicago every year,” Smalley said. “We go to all the Mexican restaurants in the area to see what they’re up to, and we found a lot of stuff there. The place is a collaboration of things we thought were really super cool in different restaurants.”
The menu is as fresh and bright as the restaurant. This isn’t the type of Mexican food that comes drowned in cheese and lacking in flavor. Instead, Flores’ take on Mexican cuisine is fresh, bright and savory through every bite. Like the famous Lunada smothered burrito, packed with smoked pork (smoked in-house, of course) with beans and rice, rolled in a tortilla and covered in that Colorado liquid-gold, green chili.
“I’m trying to do a fresh take on Mexican food by using as much local people as we can,” Chef Flores explains. “We use a local Lafayette hamburger producer and everything is made fresh every day.” They even grow their own herbs in a small herb garden on the patio out back. “I used the herbs out back today. They just keep growing and growing…we roast tomatoes and tomatillos every day. We have an in-house smoker, we smoke pork and brisket, and once in a while we’ll do ribs or pork belly. It’s what I like to call a fresh look on Mexican food.”
The move to the new space may have been an unforeseen obstacle for Smalley and Flores, but the customers followed. “The first day we were here, our customers from (the old space) were driving here to check it out,” Smalley remembered. “As a business owner, what that does to your heart, it makes you choke up and it makes you tear up because they really cared about us. That’s the best compliment those people could ever have shown us…There’s a lot of people that have helped us get here, we’re very indebted to them. Our current landlord helped us. Even the church helped us get here.”
The response continues to be strong. The restaurant is doing great business and the pair has lots of fun plans for the future, including a new chef’s table set to open in the fall, featuring a special prix-fixe menu delivered by Chef Flores himself. For now, the hard working duo continues to keep Lunada fresh and bright every day, “our motto is, ‘we try to do better every day.’ If we can be a little bit better than we did yesterday, then that’s a good day.”