Los Vaqueros turns 30: Throwback prices while pursuing future opportunities

Celestina Blok Business Press Food Columnist

Surviving in the restaurant industry for a decade, let alone three, is something of a miracle. But the Cisneros family, who is celebrating 30 years of Los Vaqueros, is just getting started.

After this week’s anniversary celebration, which includes throwback pricing (featuring plates in the $2 and $3 range and beer for pocket change) and culminates with a party on the patio at the Stockyards original, they’ll get back to business. There are plans that need to be outlined for the Gardens at Los Vaqueros, which include weekly live music and a possible outdoor cooking station for customers to place walk-up orders. There is also talk of a new restaurant launch – an order-at-the-counter casual concept targeted to college and beach towns.

“It wouldn’t be full-service,” said Johnny Cisneros III, third-generation chef and son of “Big Johnny” Cisneros, the patriarch of the family who opened Los Vaqueros with his wife Kiki in 1983. “If we stay with the Los Vaqueros name, then they want Los Vaqueros food and the Los Vaqueros menu. We’d put it under a different name…something catchy.”

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Talk of anniversary parties and beach town expansions is something Kiki Cisneros never dreamed of when she first considered opening a Stockyards restaurant in the early 80s. At the time, she and Big Johnny already owned and operated Mi Casa, run out of a small house in Riverside, but were becoming cramped in their tiny space.

“Mi Casa was too small. I wanted something larger for my family,” Kiki said. “Billy Bob’s had just opened up.”

Envisioning all of the boot-scooting cowboys who would embark upon the Stockyards, Kiki admired a building at 2609 N. Main St.

“I was looking through the windows and I could already picture everything,” she said.

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The family leased the space from Buck Nation of Tandy Brands in Dallas (and later from the Luskey family who took over ownership) and opened Los Vaqueros, named not only for the area cowboys but for sons Michael and Johnny III, who pretended to be “vaqueros” as children. By then, Johnny III had married his high school sweetheart Vicki, who would later become a driving force behind the Los Vaqueros brand.

“I was working for a law firm and helped with the leases,” Vicki said. “I went in to help and it was just going to be temporary. One week turned into another week and finally I just ended up staying at the restaurant.”

It was a family affair at what would be Los Vaqueros’ first location, where the Cisneros team began building a loyal customer base that would later follow them to their existing home, the massive, L-shaped Dominick Hart building, which is listed on the national register of historic places and located at 2629 N. Main St. It was Vicki who pursued the move, which took place in 1995 after their existing lease was about to expire.

“My brother-in-law told me, ‘Are you crazy? That’s huge!’” Vicki said.

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Vicki negotiated to purchase the building after the city of Fort Worth wouldn’t allow the previous owner to demolish the structure.

“Obviously when we came in we didn’t want to demolish anything,” Vicki said. “It is a huge building. When we opened the doors over here, we were very, very concerned. You’re talking going from seating 130 people to seating 500 people. We seat 390 in our main dining room here. We’re five times as big as we were.”

But growth in size and customer headcounts, and the fact that the family incorporated upon the move, didn’t change Los Vaqueros’ tried-and-true methods in the kitchen. That includes never purchasing pre-cut vegetables, shedding chicken by hand for enchiladas, and using real butter and high-quality cheese.

“The same things we were doing in 1983 are the same things we’re doing today,” said Johnny III. “We’re not cutting any corners. It’s a pride deal.” Vicki admits the move from a family owned and operated restaurant to a family owned and operated corporation was difficult.

“We were so used to making decisions from a family aspect. We might have dinner at home and discuss upcoming events,” she said. “We had to retrain, rethink and regroup. It was an incredible workload for us. We had to employ systems within systems to make the operations of the corporation equitable for all family members, so that one didn’t’ have too much on their plate. We departmentalized – bar, front of house, back of house. We had a true restaurant operation.”

Kiki says Vicki, who is now president of Cisneros Restaurants Inc., has picked up where she left off.

“Vicki has been my right arm all along,” she said. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Today there are three Los Vaqueros locations including Los Vaqueros West in Weatherford and the new Los Vaqueros University at 3105 Cockrell Ave. Michael can be found primarily at the University location working with his son Chance, who is the only grandson of the family and is believed to be the next Cisneros in line to take the reins of the business.

“It reminds me when I was young,” said Big Johnny of Chance’s current dishwashing duties.

Both Kiki and Big Johnny attribute customer service and consistency as the key Los Vaqueros’ longevity.

“The main thing is taking care of that person who walks through that door,” Kiki said. “This very successful man told me once, as long as you have clean plates, good food and good service, you’re gonna make it. I just went by what he said. And it’s true.”