Former employees, regulars band together to resurrect Casa
BBJ photo/MARK MALIJAN
|Hans Sendelbach, Mandala Cascade, and Spencer Willhoft are the core ownership group working to reopen Casa Que Pasa, which has been closed since last July.|
Chances are, if you attended college in Bellingham, you ate one of your first off-campus meals at Casa Que Pasa, and it was probably a potato burrito.
Later on, if you celebrated your 21st birthday in Bellingham, chances are Casa’s tequila bar was one of your barhopping stops that evening.
And if you were ever hungry and broke, but couldn’t stomach another packet of Top Ramen, the likelihood that you scraped up a few bucks for a green magma quesadilla at the Railroad Avenue institution are pretty high, and you probably happened upon a few friends or acquaintances who would buy you a lime margarita on the rocks for your troubles. The odds were always good of bumping into an old friend at Casa. In fact, people referred to the close-knit Casa community as the “Casa familia.”
But then all that changed on July 3, 2006, when the Department of Revenue shut down the restaurant and bar and revoked its business license. The days of languorous tequila sipping and socializing abruptly ended, and Casaphiles everywhere felt homeless.
Mandala Cascade was one of those homeless Casagoers who decided she didn’t want to let go of the restaurant and bar at 1415 Railroad Ave. She and four others will reopen Casa Que Pasa this spring — a venture that is not without challenges.
The fact that many people feel some ownership in the business has proved a blessing and a curse. While former regulars have volunteered their time to help reopen the restaurant, its original owner is challenging Cascade and her partners with a trademark dispute.
Where everybody knows your name …
The idea to reopen the restaurant originated while Cascade lamented Casa’s closure with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, Hans Sendelbach.
Sendelbach, who had been studying business for the past two years with the goal of opening his own restaurant, jumped onboard Cascade’s cause. While he had never been as devoted a regular as she had, he recognized a good business opportunity.
“Casa is really important to a lot of people,” he said, adding that even his brother, who had been working in Eastern Washington at the time, had heard about its closure. “It has a lot of heart and soul.”
The two rounded up a group of five investors, a veritable five-degrees-of-Casa-separation, to reopen the restaurant. Originally, Elizabeth Moss, a former employee and her husband, Nick, were the main investors, but Cascade said the couple dropped out of the deal because of disagreements with Sendelbach, although Cascade maintains they are all still good friends.
Cascade, who also works as a bartender at the Nightlight Lounge, described the ownership group as such: “It’s me, my brother, my brother-in-law, his brother and Spencer,” she said.
Cascade and her brother, Elanos Mansker, used a piece of property in Carnation their father left them after he passed away as collateral for a bank loan. Sendelbach and his brother had money saved up to use, as did Spencer Willhoft, Cascade’s manager at the Nightlight, who also signed on to the project.
Originally, the group announced plans to open a Casa-type restaurant as a completely new business entity, under a different name — Casa Nueva — but was then able to secure the Casa Que Pasa trademark, according to Sendelbach.
Sendelbach said the name was unregistered when they secured it.
“The way we look at it, it was abandoned,” he said.
However, Casa seems to be one of those places in which everyone feels at least some sort of ownership.
Travis Holland, owner of The Horseshoe Café and the original owner of Casa Que Pasa, recently strung Casa Que Pasa signs and began selling potato burritos from his café on West Holly Street.
Holland opened the original restaurant in 1993 with his partner, Alana Shillington. He said he licensed the business concept and sold the equipment to Advanced Renovations — Abel Jordan’s company — in January 2000, but that he retained the actual business entity.
Jordan’s business license was revoked and the restaurant shut down in July after he failed to pay Department of Revenue taxes.
Rumors floated about why Jordan couldn’t make ends meet at a restaurant and bar that seemed to be such a destination, but the circumstances remain unclear. Jordan could not be reached for comment for this story.
When Advanced Renovations ceased to operate, Holland said the license lapsed, and that the intellectual property reverted back to him. He said that the current business owners of Casa Que Pasa should either license the business concept, including its name, concept and potato burrito recipe, from him, or cease and desist operations there.
“These folks are coming in and just stealing this concept from me,” he said. “We poured our heart and soul into developing that business from scratch.”
Holland said he is currently pursuing a licensing agreement with the new owners, but if that falls through, he will pursue legal action.
The new owners, not surprisingly, see the situation differently. After securing the trademark for the name, they said Holland is the one at risk for having legal action taken against him, and that licensing a recipe for the potato burrito would be like licensing a recipe for a hamburger, because it is common knowledge how to make them.
“We just secured the trademark, so our view of it is, as long as he doesn’t use our name, it’s fine with us,” Sendelbach said. Because Holland is using the name on the posters at his cafe, the new Casa owners have yet to decide if they’ll pursue any legal action about the issue.
“We’ll see what develops,” Sendelbach said.
… And they’re always glad you came
Meanwhile, former Casa customers have volunteered their Saturdays to help the new owners reignite the space with a good, deep cleaning. They are baptizing the old, familiar aspects of the business with new variations. For example, volunteers are re-sanding and repainting the old tabletops, known for their colorful murals, with new ones. A mural in the front area will be replaced by a local artist’s festive rendition of the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead celebration.
“The fact that former Casagoers are getting together to reopen it says a lot about the community that loves it,” former employee Misty McNeil said.
The new menu will include children’s items, as well as a kids’ corner with books and coloring supplies. This idea was important to Cascade, who grew up with a single mother and wanted to offer her friends a place for dinner where they wouldn’t spend more than $20.
“So many of my friends have kids,” she said. “This way it won’t be like ‘Oh we have to get a babysitter’ just to go out for meals and a drink.”
Besides those few changes, and a few more finger foods and snacks in the bar, the menu will stay mostly the same, offering affordable burritos and quesadillas.
The owners will also convert the space’s attached office area into six or seven artist studio rentals, in addition to showing local artists’ works in the restaurant section.
“It seemed really compatible with Casa,” Sendelbach said. “What’s important, as far as keeping the whole feel of Casa, is to keep the sense of it being your living room. It’s also really important to have local voices in the space.”
When the restaurant and bar reopens sometime in April, at least five of the former employees will return to work, including Cascade’s boyfriend and McNeil.
“I’m really excited about it,” McNeil said. “We all get along so well, and it’s a really fun work environment.”
For the current owners, retaining Casa’s original spirit is important while at the same time improving upon its former missteps.
A frequent customer, Cascade ate and drank at Casa at least four times a week, and marks her Casa memories by the evolution of three Casa bartender eras — Kurt, Cruz and Joel — the later being her boyfriend.
For Cascade, Casa was a home away from home, and she appreciated the restaurant’s healthy and affordable food.
“It was one of the only bars or restaurants in town with no TVs, no video games, no mass-media distractions. It was all about talking,” she said. “That was a bit of a reason why people felt so close to each other when they came here. If I wanted to go out and have a drink I didn’t have to call anybody to come hang out with me, I could just show up here and I’d already know somebody.”
While the circumstances for what led to the restaurant’s demise in July are still unclear, Cascade said she thought general mismanagement on the part of Jordan was to blame.
“He just started ignoring things,” she said. “Joel would get calls in the morning to let workers in because no one was there, or there was no money in the till. I think he just stepped away, and his interests were somewhere else and he just went bye-bye.”
McNeil, who worked as a server in the bar for two years before its closure couldn’t pinpoint exactly what happened either.
“When I first started working there, it was stable,” she said. “Toward the end paychecks started bouncing, liquor orders weren’t coming in. It was very frustrating.”
The Casa familia sensed the ship was sinking.
“It was obvious it was going down, and for months and months and months, me and all the regulars, and all the people that worked downtown, were like, “It’s just going. It’s a shame, somebody should do something about it,’” Cascade said.
When it closed, Cascade’s boyfriend was jobless, her favorite place to hang out was gone, she couldn’t find the same healthy, affordable food anywhere else in town, and she began racking her brain for ways to reopen the restaurant.
“It’s such a shame, because if somebody could just do it, it’s really just a moneymaker. It’s kind of like a formula,” she remembered saying at the time.
McNeil said she is extremely confident the problems that surfaced under her former employer won’t be an issue this time around.
“The new management has a good head on their shoulders. We’ve been able to learn from old mistakes,” she said.
Soon, the Saturday work parties of the Casa familia will be rewarded for their hard work, the devoted customers who refused to let their second home go will once again drink margaritas in Casa’s spruced-up bar. The owners hope new downtown customers will get hooked as well.
“In the long run, we’re hoping to be an important part of the people’s lives that move downtown. I think that that will be an area of growth for us,” Sendelbach said. “Casa is just a really amazing place because it’s been able to survive in the downtown area for so many years, and that’s really admirable.”
How to eat a Casa burrito: the experts weigh in
It seems like everyone eats their potato burrito differently. Here is how the experts eat theirs:
Mandala Cascade: Cut in half down the middle, then get the good parts out and leave the tortilla. With chipotle salsa.
Hans Sendelbach: Eats it front to back with a fork.
Misty McNeil: Has hers on a roma tortilla, no beans, add rice, add onions, extra sauce. No method, object is to get as messy as possible. No need for a fork.