Like Johnny Carson, Hank Muffett and Conrad Kostelecky understand the wisdom of leaving when you’re at the top of your game. After 11 years of growing a local three-table eatery into a wildly popular business, begun more or less as a hobby, the two recently sold Chiles in the hope of having more time to smell the salt air.
What determines why one restaurant is a veritable magnet for loyal patrons while another sits idle? When “Vallarta Lifestyles” posed that question to some of Chiles’ devoted customers, great food and fantastic prices emerged as common denominators. However, beyond ribs, chicken and burgers that were “the best in town” and a simple menu with nothing priced higher than $79 pesos, Chiles had a unique draw, which revolved around its owners’ gentle spirits, quick wit and unselfish humanity.
Eating there was more about the camaraderie — like going to a backyard picnic. It was a completely well rounded cultural event with a melting pot of interesting people that, somehow, Hank had the knack of communicating with. One afternoon at Chiles I renamed the Arnold Palmer (iced tea mixed with lemonade) — my favorite beverage — to the Tom Cruise. I didn’t want to have lunch with Arnie on a daily basis, but Tom is a different story! Chiles became a phenomenal success because of the magical environment the guys created. They accidentally brought the community together by being kind, genuine people who provided a home away from home. For me, their leaving is very emotional — like mom and dad have kicked me out of the house. Now what am I going to do?
Polly and Hubert Vicars
It’s ridiculous, but even after all these years, I could never keep straight who was who, so I just called them both Hankonrad. They are lovely human beings with big hearts, who helped any way they could. For years they let the Becas Scholarship committee meet at the restaurant — no charge. Whenever Hubert or I had a cold, one of us would go to Chiles with a Tupperware container and bring back hot chicken soup. We always got better after eating it.
I first met them during an interview at the restaurant after business hours. We were having a wonderful conversation when I noticed a small fire toward the back of the terrace. It was dark, and having never been there, I assumed someone was burning leaves so I didn’t say anything. The fire grew bigger and bigger, and I realized it was inside a window. Finally, I said, “Guys, I think your place is on fire!” They turned around, and all three of us jumped up, got buckets and put out the flames with water from the fountain. I said, “We’ll talk another time,” but being the gracious people they are, Hank and Conrad insisted we continue the interview as planned.
They leave behind a legacy that other venue owners would do well to emulate: always being there for your customers and staying connected with the people who patronize your business.
The success of a restaurant is never about the menu. It has to do with understanding your customers’ feelings. Hank and Conrad were masters at making you feel good, and that’s why you went there. When I received their email thanking people for their patronage and announcing the sale of the restaurant, I wrote back, “Well, #%&* you! Where am I going to get my Chicken Chip Cookie (the name I gave their chicken sandwich) and who’s going to put up with my crap now that you’re riding off into the sunset?” There is no place like it in town. It was so comfortable, and they will be sorely missed.