Tired of the daily grind and wanting to take charge of their lives, three brothers – Sylvester, Frank and Albert Garcia – and their father, Erminio, borrowed $6,000 (a hefty sum in 1957) to start a little restaurant tucked away in Flagstaff’s Sun-nyside neighborhood.
The men named their restaurant La Fonda, homage to the Spanish term “fondita,” or the makeshift eateries that sprang up throughout the West to offer gold miners respite, sustenance and company.
Today, La Fonda is a Flagstaff mainstay still located in the Sunnyside neighborhood. It has grown considerably from its humble beginnings, inspiring generations of restaurateurs and six additional family-owned Mexican restaurants throughout Arizona, including the La Fondas in Prescott and Camp Verde, and Kachina Downtown in Flagstaff.
Sylvester’s son, Marty, manages the Flagstaff location today. Some of his earliest memories are of working and playing in the restaurant as a young kid.
“We learned the ropes from the ground up,” said Marty, who remembers at age eight working on Saturdays alongside his cousins, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, peeling potatoes – 100 per day for French fries – and shredding lettuce.
As the cousins got older, they moved up to bussing tables and washing dishes.
Marty left Flagstaff out of high school and moved to Albuquerque to become an auto mechanic. “I was one of those 18-year-old kids who had to get out of the house,” he said. But the family business eventually drew him back, and in the 1980s, he owned his own La Fonda in Kingman.
He has watched the family business evolve over the years. The original site could serve 30 people; today there is room for 180. There are 50 employees, and the kitchen prepares staple and signature dishes twice per day and up to three times per day on the weekends.
Now 86, Marty’s father, Sylvester, still comes to work every morning at 6:00 a.m. with his son to make beans and tamales.
On average, the kitchen serves between 80 and 120 enchiladas per day, 180 dozen tacos, and 100 pounds of beans – and double that on the weekends. The cooks use up to 160 pounds of cheese per day and 120 pounds of shredded lettuce.
Marty’s business philosophy has been to stay true to the Sunnyside neighborhood location, despite the fact that it is off the “main drag.” Over the years, the family has discussed moving to a more visible or even swankier site, but they wanted to honor and continue to support the neighborhood that has nurtured them.
“A lot of people can’t get a grip on that,” said Marty, “the main thing you have to do is take care of the local people. Tourists will come and go.” Along those same lines, when celebrities come into the restaurant, no fuss is made over them – staff may get autographs, but the Garcia family wants to respect their privacy like any other customer and does not make a big fuss.
One thing that has changed over the years is the marketing strategy. Five years ago, Marty began advertising in Northern Arizona University’s student newspaper, The Lumberjack, and students began coming in greater numbers. Last year, La Fonda added a “fan” page to Facebook and began posting updates, restaurant news and giving customers a heads up on specials. Today, the Facebook page has more than 3,200 fans and specials such as “Tuesday Tacos” and $2 margaritas are a hit.
Marty’s daughter, Stephanie, 30, and son Brandon, 25, now are managing the restaurant, with aspirations to take it over some day. Said Marty, “We had that discussion the other day. We’re staying true to our roots.” FbN