Frontier owners Larry and Dorothy Rainosek talk growing a business, a family atmosphere and green chile
Frontier Owners Talk About 45 Years on Rt. 66
When property along The Mother Road in Albuquerque became available just across the street from the University of New Mexico, Larry Rainosek and his wife, Dorothy, made for the Land of Enchantment to become the founding owners the Frontier Restaurant.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Dorothy said. “He wanted his own business, and we had this opportunity.”
After 45 years of adjusting to parking demands, regional tastes and chile preferences, the Rainoseks now own what they proudly call “the institution across from the institution,” in addition to four locations of its sister restaurant, Golden Pride, a fried chicken restaurant.
“There’s a little bit more to Frontier than just the food,” Larry said. “The food’s the magnet, but people talk about the Frontier.”
At its inception, the Frontier, a one-room, 99-seat restaurant with only six parking spaces, was expected to be a “university hangout” similar to what Rainosek experienced during his time managing a restaurant on the edge of campus at the University of Texas at Austin.
But when walk-in traffic from UNM didn’t meet expectations, Larry said he was faced with his first conflict as a restaurant owner.
“We didn’t realize that this location was going to be so different,” he said, recalling what it was like to learn that, though similar in size at the time, Austin was denser than the more vehicle-oriented Albuquerque.
Adding parking spaces resulted in “a big boost to our business,” he said. “This was critical for the growth of Frontier. The parking and vehicular traffic were huge, because, as well-located as Frontier is to campus, even today, our busiest period is Sunday morning, when the campus is closed.”
Although certain expectations weren’t met, others were exceeded, Larry said. The Frontier didn’t need to depend solely on business from students when an entire town was willing to contribute.
“We evolved,” he said. “We’ve become, by size and menu and exposure and management, a community restaurant, a bit of a destination for casual dining.”
On any given day, all of Albuquerque is represented at the establishment, Dorothy said: “You have politicians, priests, students, faculty and staff, visitors, just all walks of life.”
The ‘aha’ moment
People consider the Frontier, along with its famous sweet rolls, fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade tortillas, and signature green chile stew and posole, to be a part of Albuquerque, Larry said. “When Albuquerque is mentioned, it’s not uncommon to have Frontier mentioned.”
The lack of parking space wasn’t the only obstacle the Frontier has overcome in its 45 years. In the beginning, the Rainoseks also lacked a vital bit of knowledge.
“We didn’t know about green chile,” Larry said. “Very quickly, the employees that we hired said, ‘You’ve got to have green chile.’ So we bought the green chile.”
After employees taught the owners how New Mexicans roast chile, Larry said the Frontier processed its own, heavily roasted chile until expansion and growing demand required them to switch to a commercial vendor. Frontier’s chile needs are now met by Bueno Foods and New Mexico Foods, two local chile purveyors, which helps contribute to an ethos of local success.
“People like to see local companies benefit from businesses buying local,” Larry said.
Much of the Frontier’s appeal comes from its ability to represent itself as an authentic New Mexican restaurant, he said, and that simply would not have been possible without trading his Tex-Mex roots for the distinctive southwestern tastes of Albuquerque.
As for the employees who imparted the pearl of New Mexican chile wisdom unto the Rainoseks, one of them now serves as the general manager at one of their Golden Pride locations.
Larry said 45 years of surrounding himself with the right people has allowed him lately to take on more of a facilitating role, rather than a hands-on manager role, in his business’s daily operations.
“At this stage, I’m more of a helper, always available to answer questions and help when needed,” he said. Among his duties are seeing to equipment repairs and maintaining employee morale. Some of the Rainoseks’ current managers have been with them since the very beginning, he said, and several others have called him their employer for decades.
In the food industry, being a good employer is critical, Larry said.
“We have good retention for being in food service,” he said. “When people learn their jobs and stay with us, it just makes it so much better for the customer and for the management team.”
Dorothy went so far as to implement an employee rewards program called “The Rolex Club,” whereby employees who have worked 20 years for the Rainoseks are presented with a brand-new Rolex watch at a dinner held in their honor.
“A big part of our lives is having a great team. We work together,” Dorothy said.
Frontier’s success has allowed the Rainoseks to engage in philanthropy. They donate to the St. Pius Catholic community and other charitable causes, including much-needed veterans’ services, UNM athletics, and UNM and CNM scholarship funds.
The Frontier’s philanthropic efforts are currently “on hold” due to a recent decline in business brought on by construction of the ART project along Central Avenue just outside the restaurant’s front door, as well as the Rainoseks’ own contributions to ART opponents’ lawsuit against the project, Larry said.
“It’s not going to be easy for people to come into the area,” Dorothy said. Among trustees at a UNM Foundation Board meeting, “Those living in Albuquerque said they ‘avoid Central like the plague,’ [and] they go out of their way so they don’t have to fight the traffic.”
Aside from cutting down work hours and overtime for employees since business has fallen off, she said, the Rainoseks have not filled employment vacancies.
“It’s not just our employees,” Dorothy said of those affected by ART. “It’s their families also.”
Employment at the Golden Pride on West Central was down 20 percent after the first month of ART construction, Larry said.
Dorothy said she refers to the work being done on Central as “destruction” as opposed to construction.
“Something has really changed,” she said. City Hall used to be pro-business, especially for small businesses, “but they’re not anymore.”
The Rainoseks don’t mince words about the administration of Mayor Richard Berry, where the prevailing attitude, Dorothy said, is “‘Ah, yes, some of them will go out of business, but there will be others to take their place.’ That’s not being very business friendly.”
She said she is skeptical of the city’s reassurance that the Frontier will be as accessible as it was before the ART project began. She fears the restaurant may lose access to its front door due to impending sidewalk restrictions.
“They will be tearing up a historic highway,” Dorothy said. “It might not be the same.”
Despite the anticipation of restricted accessibility along Central, Larry said he is hopeful that the Frontier will be restored to business as usual because of its legion of loyal customers and customers’ access via other streets, such as Lead, Coal and Silver.
“We’re very heavily invested in Route 66,” Larry said, referring to the two other businesses he operates along the Central Avenue corridor. “It’s all about visibility, so that people can see you and try you. Then, if you have good accessibility, hopefully they’ll keep coming back.”
Given the lack of population density in Albuquerque, he said it’s hard to believe that city residents will turn away from their vehicles and buy into public transportation. ART is a “premature” attempt at forcing this shift, Larry said.
“I can’t support a lack of vehicular access to our restaurants,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how Albuquerque can grow.”
“We’re very passionate about Frontier and Golden Pride. They’re kind of like our other children,” Dorothy said. “We’ve had them for so long, they’re such a part of our lives, and they make so many things possible.”