The Lucios: Building a restaurant brand on quality, innovation and community

A platter of hot fajitas sizzles at Palomino Mexican Restaurant. (Emily Kemme)

When he was growing up, Blake Lucio didn’t want to be part of his parents’, Brenda and Richard Lucio, restaurant company. He went to college at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley with dreams of becoming a sports writer. But after working at PF Chang’s for over two years while finishing his degree, he fell in love with the food industry.

It could be the business of food is in his blood.

The younger Lucio’s grandfather, Joseph — or Joe, as many knew him — started the Armadillo in 1971 in LaSalle. Before that, Joe was a barber.

“He became a self-made man,” said his grandson.

“My parents worked for the Armadillo since they were 16 years old,” Blake said. “They were high school sweethearts, a month apart in age. They started out as hosts, moving on to roles as servers and managers, and as the company expanded to over 10 stores, became regional managers.”

In 1997, Brenda and Richard sold their big house and cars, downsizing their life to start up Coyotes Southwestern Grill on the western edge of Greeley, 5250 9th St. Drive.

“There was nothing out there, and we were a little ahead of the times, taking a chance in a very conservative steak-and-potatoes town,” Blake noted. 

The scratch restaurant veered away from many familiar Mexican dishes, highlighting grilled meats and vegetables served with designer salsa. The concept developed slowly, expanding to open Palomino Mexican Restaurant in Evans in 2005. A second Palomino opened in Loveland in 2010. At the time, Blake was a senior at Greeley West High School. 

After his career plan reversal, the next step was owning up to it.

“I told my parents I would love the opportunity for an interview.”

Even with a degree in marketing and a minor in media studies, Blake said he knew he would have to work his way up the management track. Now 27, he’s been employed full-time by his parents for five years. He strives to be a regional manager, working alongside Robert Duran, who operates in that capacity today. 

“My parents have always made me take the hard road,” he said. “And it’s doubly hard knowing when to be the son and when to be the employee. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. But if you don’t change with the times, you get left behind. You need to stay relevant — some of the old-school approaches are no longer valid.”

Fort Collins and Denver-based Blue Agave presents a menu of Asian Mexican fusion with unique flavors and elegant presentations. (Emily Kemme)

The past five years have seen rapid growth. Blue Agave Grill opened in downtown Fort Collins in April 2014, bringing Richard’s dream of upscale Asian Mexican fusion to plated reality. 

“It became an overnight success in a premium location, setting the precedent of our growth,” Blake said.

The contemporary menu is 80% gluten free — with popular items like the Tunarita, sushi grade raw tuna and avocado presented in a margarita goblet. There also is the simple fish taco, tempura-battered tilapia prepared with marinated cherry tomatoes. It is the brainchild of Chef Garrett Adler, who started at Coyotes as a fry cook, moved on to culinary school in Texas, and returned to helm the kitchen at Blue Agave. 

Blue Agave took the leap two years ago to open in Denver.

“We had to work hard to build the brand in a Denver market with so many options.” Blake said. “It’s now our second busiest store — the Fort Collins Blue Agave comes in first.” 

In 20 years, the Lucio’s have opened six restaurants with three different concepts. The newest, a street taco concept called Vatos Tacos & Tequila at The Exchange in Fort Collins, allowed Blake to take the lead developing a millennial fave — the fast-casual spot. 

“Millennials like quality food that’s Colorado or locally grown, made from scratch in house,” he said. “But they want to enjoy it in a casual environment. The Exchange is built out of shipping containers in an enclosed yard.”

The design permits restaurant patrons to stroll the courtyard with open containers, becoming a food destination playground. The name Vatos is slang for “bro,” adding another layer of casual friendliness to the concept.

Of the three Lucio concepts, the menu at Palomino Mexican Restaurant remains closest to traditional Colorado Mexican classics. (Emily Kemme)

Even with growth, Blake believes the company hasn’t lost touch of the local, small business feel.

Blake is certain all this could only have been family created, giving a nod to his parents’ long marriage.

“They are polar opposites,” he said. “They bring different strengths to the partnership. It requires a lot of work, patience and sometimes butting heads.”

Richard is the food guy. He never wanted to lessen the food quality, finding ways to work with product price increases. For example, the tender Beef Arrachera, grilled chile-lime marinated skirt steak, at Palomino has a mesquite grilled flavor that happens thanks to charring the outer edges on the grill after spending between 24 to 36 hours in a vacuum-sealed marinade. 

“And in a day when a lot of restaurant enterprises grow and bring in the green chile or onions pre-diced, we don’t,” he said. “It’s all made here.”

Brenda is the people person.

“My mom still signs off on the paychecks of over 350 employees,” Blake said. “She remembers people by name. We give back to local charities, and we’re involved with the Chamber of Commerce in each community where we have a presence.”

Continuing to reinvest in the business and keep it quality has been key, Blake said, along with empowering employees. 

“It’s bigger than my parents now,” he said. “There are a lot of great people who are a part of this. But Brenda and Richard have never lost tune of where we came from. It’s their own company, their own brand, their own path.”