Sunday, September 22, 2019

Z as in Mexican

This are some of the opening crew of Zuma Tex-Mex Café in 1991. The fellow in the red ball cap at the rear next to Peggy is Cody Baker. In front of Cody is Joe Tabone our general manager before Cody. I don't remember the name of the server next to him. Maybe Janine. On the far left is Joe Caliri who tended bar at Zuma for 25 years before quitting with a day's notice. He was an insincere jerk but one hell of a bartender. In my straw cowboy hat is Cindy Strohman and the legs in the center belong to Diana Denman who may have stolen a days receipts when she was an assistant manager several years later. We couldn't prove she took the $5,000 but it did happen after she closed one night.

We sold our Boston restaurant to Cody Baker in 2002. I’ve kept in touch with him over the years though less and less frequently as time has passed. Peggy and I owned Zuma Tex-Mex Grill for thirteen years which means Cody with 17 years and counting is the longest tenured owner. We, however, own the record as the oldest former owners. You can’t take that away from us, bucko. Cody is now 56 so he would have been 28 when he began working for us in 1991. He was our chef when we converted the original Zuma, a failing fine dining restaurant to something that might actually work. The first Zuma served a fusion of dishes from warm weather regions of the world. It's successor sold cheap Mexican and booze, lots of booze.

As Zuma numero uno was drawing its last breath and we were on the brink of ruin we took the concept way the hell down market in 13 short nights. I concluded that going the fajitas and margaritas route, emphasis on margaritas, would save our sorry asses. So, we renovated the 80-seater over two weeks without closing and opened at 11:30am one Thursday morning in April as Zuma Tex-Mex Café. Sales doubled that very day and we owned it for another decade while I pursued other endeavors including an absurdly successful six-unit Italian chain and a myriad of consulting gigs. We made finally made our exit when Cody paid us cash money to buy the joint. Money talks. 

Ten days ago I saw a headline in the Boston Globe saying that Zuma Tex-Mex was engaged in a lawsuit with another restaurant called Zuma. Further, the article said that my old establishment was going to have to change its name. But the article indicated that Cody and Zuma Tex-Mex had won the case. Something didn't compute.

Being the busy body that I am, I called last Monday morning. Cody answered the phone as he has for more than 20 years. I knew he would unless he'd gone to the bank. Monday is inventory day and, according to me, no bona fide operator would ever delegate that task. In fact, when I was operating the aforementioned Italian chain, Vinny Testa's, I joined Cody at Zuma every Monday morning for five years to help with the ending inventory. I counted and entered the numbers.

When I heard his voice I said, “So, you have to change your name. What’s it going to be?”

He replied, “Steve! I don’t know yet. We have six months to decide.”

I asked, “What the hell happened?”

He told me that he had licensed the name Zuma to the defendant a couple of years back and that the name could be used outside Massachusetts only. The company that bought the rights owned and operated high end restaurants called Zuma that were often located in upscale hotels. He told me they paid him $250,000 for limited rights to the name but then had the audacity to open a Zuma in the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston. This was clearly a violation of their agreement, so he sued them and, as I had read in the Globe, he had prevailed.

“But, you’re the one having to change your name after thirty years. How does that work?”

He said, “Well, I sold them the rights to the Zuma name.”

I asked, “Do you mind if I ask how much you got?”

He answered, “$1,350,000. $900,000 after attorney’s fees. The lawyer took the case on a contingency basis and I got almost a mil."

I gasped, “Holy crap! You struck it rich.”

He chuckled, “I guess Ben can go to any college he wants.” Ben being Cody and Annie’s 18-year old son.

“I guess he can. Where does he want to go?” I probed.

Cody said, “Tufts.”

I remembered that I had licensed the Zuma name in the mid-90s to Colorado based Zuma Fresh Mexican and I got a pathetic $10,000. That Zuma, it turns out, had originally been called Zteca but it needed a new name when they were sued by and Arizona operator who has a prior use of Zteca. So, they rented Zuma for a couple of years and when I wanted a bigger licensing fee in year three they told me to take a hike and made up the name Qdoba. There are now 700 Qdobas across the country. There could just as well have been 700 Zumas it seems to me.

And speaking of the letter Z, when I was president of a Mexican chain called Zapata which we took incoming fire heat from the Mexican-American Anti-defamation League who look askance at our depiction of Emilio Zapata as a archetypal Mexican bandido with a big sombrero, a black moustache and silver pistolas. We were stereotyping Mexicans they contended. So, we yielded and conjured up the fake and meaningless name Zantigo. True story. 

When I learned of Cody’s good fortune I was mostly happy for him. Does this mean if we'd kept Zuma Tex-Mex for another 17 years we'd have received more than a million dollars for our efforts and still own the restaurant? And what would we change the name to?

Something with a Z I'm thinking.


Blacks Crossing said...

Definitely a "Z" is the ticket, Steve! What a great story. Glad to hear that Cody made a bundle, and that you are "mostly happy for him." We know that feeling. It pleases me to see you back at the potential book of your life in the restaurant business. As always, we look forward to more!

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