If you do the math the Bautista family’s collective restaurant-experience total eclipses the 50-year mark and keeps going. While brothers Juan and Francisco have owned and operated Carmen’s Café for over a decade and-a-half, some might call their most recent expansion endeavors doing it backwards.
It started in the late 1980s with a midtown dishwashing gig at Villa Fontana. A 15-year-old Francisco Bautista busted suds in the operation owned by legendary Kansas City restauranteur Victor Fontana. Eight months later, however, Fontana’s doors closed, but Bautista’s old boss -- chef Anthony Ferrara -- had been hired to open Garrozo’s Ristorante at 526 Harrison. Ferrara called Bautista and in 1989 they opened the now-historic Italian-cuisine location.
Bautista -- the fourth of Juan and Carmen’s six children -- spent a decade at Garrozo’s, moving from dish to prep to salad, then grill, followed by saute. Having spent five years rising in the ranks, Bautista earned an opportunity to call the shots by landing the kitchen-manager position -- which he held for almost six years -- when Ferrara left to open his own spot, Tony Ferrara’s Italian Ristorante.
|Francisco Bautista works a Wednesday lunch-order ticket while servers (sister) Monica and Juan Hernandez handle the dining room.|
This month Francisco and his brother Juan (fifth of the six) celebrate 16 years in business at their 6307 Brookside Plaza location, but they don’t intend to target a second location like their three-year Leawood-location experiment at 11526 Ash Street. Instead of growing by adding buildings to their enterprise they’ve got their hands full constructing a fleet of mobile units to operate within one of today’s most popular industry endeavors: the food truck.
In the late summer of last year, the Bautista brothers debuted Carmen’s Bites, their first food truck. Featuring smaller portions of some of the restaurant’s signature items, the Bautistas and their crew served speidini sandwiches, toasted raviolis, and stuffed artichokes (among others) at events such as First Friday in the West Bottoms, the Young Friends of Art Happy Hour at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Jazzoo, Meyer Fest at St. Peter’s Parish in Brookside, and of course this weekend's Brookside Art Fair.
|(photos courtesy of Juan Bautista)|
With the winter season behind them, they’ve got the mobile Bites operational again expect to sell a lot of food this weekend but their newest spot -- El Indio, Pollos Asados Al Carbon -- boasts the most consistent hours and thriving sales at 4835 Independence Avenue in the parking lot of an Aaron’s rental center. Carmen’s Bites will make its token appearances, but the new operation gets all the attention.
“The chicken business is good,” Francisco Bautista says. “We needed a spot on the Avenue, and the owner of Aaron’s loves Carmen’s, so we give his employees a discount to the food truck and hook the owner up with plenty of gift certificates for the restaurant.”
El Indio (The Indian, Coal-Roasted Chickens), runs five days a week -- Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday -- and offers one menu item: roasted chicken. Whether you get a half or a whole bird, you get back to the Bautista-family roots with your order as grilled peppers and onions, rice, beans, salsa, and tortillas come with your purchase. El Indio sees steady sales for each of its five business days but the Tuesday special -- buy a whole bird, get a free half-bird -- produces the biggest numbers.
|A pair of late-Friday customers order some of Gabriel Bautista's fixins.|
The brothers have decked out the Bites truck with two fryers, a grill, a six-burner range, a steam table, two coolers, and a freezer. El Indio, however, has a simpler setup: two units of refrigeration and a massive char-broiler, and it has a main guy -- Jesus Monarrez (the truck’s namesake) -- in charge of the operation. The Bautistas procure and prep the birds for marinade. The chickens then get spice-rubbed, soaked, and stored in bus tubs. Upon arrival to the Aaron’s parking lot (Monarrez transports), they get grilled, often by Gabriel, the youngest Bautista.
“I’m the black sheep,” he says. “I’ve been here (El Indio), there (Carmen’s), and then sometimes I disappear. I’ll just be here whenever they need me to be.”
Gabriel Bautista says he puts in a fair amount of hours at the truck, but points to Monarrez as the man behind the operation.
“Lotta Mexican people get offended when you call ‘em that (indian), but not me, man,” Bautista says. “You see me on the street I’ll have guaraches an’ shit. A belt. I don’t give a fuck. I like that shit.”
The chicken business, as Francisco Bautista says, is good. So good that they’re close to launching a third unit and this time the destination is Kansas City, Kansas.
“We have the truck,” he says. “It’s got equipment in it and it’s ready to go.”
The spot in the Dotte occupies the southeast corner of 7th Street and Central Avenue, a vacant establishment that has housed -- among other outfits -- a Checker’s.
|The possible future home of El Indio II, the Bautista's third food truck.|
“We just want to rent the parking lot,” Francisco Bautista says. “We know the guys at the gas station (across the street) and they’re going to let us use their restrooms.”
The only thing remaining for the third Bautista food truck to get off the ground is for Juan and Francisco to receive their new grill. While outfitted for charcoal like the original Indio, the Kansas City Health Department has told the Bautistas that other operators have left too much of a mess behind, causing the department to all but ban coal-fueled equipment. So they’ve had to pull out the coal unit and order a propane one.
|Rear, outside, and inside views of the near-ready-to-roll third Bautista truck (photos courtesy of Juan Bautista)|
While some restauranteurs -- i.e. Patrick Ryan of Port Fonda -- have started with a food truck and developed the concept into a permanent location -- the Bautistas have targeted early May to get the third truck open for business, and once it’s running, they’ll have the potential to have four outfits running at one time (assuming they could staff each location). Right now coming up with the adept hands to run each spot might pose a challenge.
"Juan's the brains behind the operation," says Gabriel Bautista.
"It's relaxing," says Juan Bautista. "Carmen's Bites is more stressful because it's a bigger menu. "El Indio's simple. You're doing the same item all of the time." He admitted that running the food truck can offer a welcome change of pace, too.
"It's nice to get out of the restaurant," he said, "because you see different people."
They may need to pull in a few other Bautistas, but with Gabriel working at El Indio, and sister Monica waiting tables at Carmen’s, the two eldest -- Roberto and Arturo -- remain the only family members not in the industry.
If El Indio II takes off, they may want to consider recruiting them.