SALINA, Kan. (AP) — After more than 40 years in the restaurant business, Jerry Gutierrez is about to make his last batch of salsa.
Gutierrez, owner of Gutierrez Mexican Restaurant, has announced his retirement and will be closing his business — a Salina landmark since 1976 — on Jan. 17.
Although he is just 57, Gutierrez said he has been working in his family’s business since he was a small child, when the restaurant was located in Russell. There has been time for little else in his life for close to five decades.
“Anyone who gets into the restaurant business knows it’s a lifestyle, not a job,” he said. “It’s what you do, and I’ve been doing it since I was 7. I started out peeling potatoes and mashing beer cans.”
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The Salina Journal reports that Gutierrez said the demands of the restaurant business have caused him to miss valuable family time through the years with his wife, Amanda, and daughters Maria and Anna, and he’s determined that won’t happen anymore.
“With my oldest daughter going off to college next year and my youngest starting high school, it wasn’t worth it anymore,” he said. “I want to spend more time with my wife and kids.”
Moreover, a health scare with oldest daughter Maria during Thanksgiving “really put things into perspective,” he said.
“She had a collapsed lung and was laying in the hospital with tubes in her on Thanksgiving Day, and I had to run back to the restaurant to close it,” he said. “Amanda was there with her, but I went back to work. I can’t explain what that did to me.”
Gutierrez Mexican Restaurant was established in Russell, where Gutierrez and his siblings grew up working at the 20-seat establishment. In 1976, the family opened a restaurant in Salina. It soon became a popular destination spot, not only for the original food selections upstairs, but for a downstairs bar that regularly hosted musical acts including Salina-based bands The Blades and Jazz Tangent and the late blues guitarist and songwriter Mark Selby.
“I have the best memories of the good old days of the early ’80s,” said Gutierrez, who started working full time at the restaurant after graduating from high school. “Mark Selby’s first professional gig was in the basement of our restaurant.”
In 1990, Gutierrez took over ownership of the restaurant. In 2004, he moved it to its current location to take advantage of traffic off Interstate Highway 135.
Gutierrez said telling his current staff earlier this week of his plans to close the restaurant was one of the hardest things he has ever done, but all of them supported his decision.
“It was humbling,” he said. “But this is about my marriage and my family; that’s why I made this decision.”
Longtime customers were surprised to hear about the closing. Salinan Brenda Smith, who with her twin sister Linda has eaten at the restaurant nearly once a week since 1976, said she was shocked at first.
“Jerry is younger than I am, and I’m not ready to retire,” she said, with a laugh. “I wish him well in his retirement. He’ll definitely be missed.”
Smith said the restaurant has stood out from similar establishments because of the caring staff, festive atmosphere and quality of the food, especially her favorite dish, a chicken fajita quesadilla.
“When I walked in, the staff knew what I wanted to drink and what sauce I wanted,” she said. “There’s a whole group of regulars who go out there, too. You always would run into someone you knew.”
Wes Jackson, founder of Salina’s Land Institute, also has been a decades-long supporter of the restaurant and often takes friends and family members to dine there, as well as guests of The Land Institute from around the world.
“Jerry was always most generous, always available and accommodating,” Jackson said. “He catered many events at The Land Institute, often at short notice. He’s also honored the community by keeping profits from the restaurant in the community.”
Even though Kansas Wesleyan University President Matt Thompson has been in Salina only four years, he and scores of students have become big fans of Gutierrez’s food.
“Probably about 2,000 students have been over to our house to eat Jerry’s food,” Thompson said. “Jerry has always been great to work with, and the students love the food, the variety of it, and the freshness of it.”
Thompson said he wishes Gutierrez the best of luck with whatever awaits him next in life.
“It’ll be a loss for the community, but I’m excited for Jerry,” he said.
Gutierrez said he decided to close the restaurant rather than try to sell it because it would not be the same place without a Gutierrez family member running it. Although family members still operate a Gutierrez restaurant in Hays, neither of his daughters is interested in taking over the Salina business — nor does Gutierrez want them to.
“I don’t want them to get into the restaurant business, not as it is today,” he said. “The hospitality business has changed. Everything is homogenized in dining, and there are very few original restaurants anymore.”
Although Gutierrez has no concrete plans for life beyond the restaurant, he knows he’s not wired to be idle.
“My intention is not to slow down, my intention is to redirect,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”
Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, http://www.salina.com