Mi Ranchito, a family-owned Mexican restaurant, survived the pandemic with support from a loyal customer base. But now its owners are struggling with a new challenge: shutting down rumors that the Lawrence location is closing.
This idea stems from plans filed by Whataburger, a fast food chain with locations in 14 states, to open a franchise in Lawrence. The proposed location, 707 W. 23rd St., is the building in which Mi Ranchito has operated since 2014.
According to Rulber de la Torre, owner of Mi Ranchito, the pending contract between his landlord and Whataburger isn’t a done deal. It would also require the city to approve a zoning change to operate a drive-thru in that location. But de la Torre is already looking for another location if they have to move out by the time their building lease expires on Nov. 30.
“It totally caught me by surprise when I heard the news about Whataburger,” de la Torre said. “But we’re still here; we’re not closing.
“We may just have to move our location to somewhere else in Lawrence. But we’re still hurting right now, and the best way for the community to support us is by coming in to eat.”
De la Torre was born and raised on a small hacienda in the heart of Mexico. In 2004, he opened his first Mi Ranchito location in Olathe. The brand has since expanded with six other locations across the Kansas City area.
The Lawrence location has lots of natural light, bright green walls, and decorations ranging from colorful serapes to cacti. The atmosphere reflects the home that the Mi Ranchito staff has made for its clientele: mostly students and local families.
About 80% of them are regulars, said Hernan Pineda, co-owner and general manager of the location.
“My favorite part of my job is talking to customers and making sure they’re happy, from the second they walk in the door,” Pineda said.
Pineda oversees a staff of about 25 people. Having worked at the location for four years, moving up in the ranks from his original role as kitchen manager, Pineda loves to foster camaraderie among his employees and ensure their guests have a great experience. He’s always looking for creative ways to do both — for example, Mi Ranchito Lawrence hosts a Mexican fiesta a couple times every year, featuring food and drink specials, dancing horses, and live music.
Staff members are always looking for ways to have fun, too, even during times of hardship. The pandemic was the ultimate stress test.
“We were definitely busier before the pandemic. We survived because we had more restaurants and could help each other out, and also because of our loyal customers. We tried to make people feel as safe as possible by requiring vaccines and frequent tests,” Pineda said.
With a thriving small business scene and popular support for shopping local, many believe the Lawrence community is more likely to back a family-owned establishment rather than a large chain. The Mi Ranchito leadership hopes its neighborhood will show that support now, as customers call them nearly every day and ask if they’ve already closed.
“The quality is there. At all of our locations, we believe in home cooking and serve only the freshest products,” de la Torre said. “Please don’t stop coming in.”
De la Torre is also seeking assistance in finding a new location, if they end up having to move. “If anyone knows of a building, they can reach out to me, because I’m still looking,” he said.
Note: A misspelled name in this article has been corrected.
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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.
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