The iconic pink castle reopened in Lakewood this year

David Corsun

Since 2021, when South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker purchased Casa Bonita, local foodies have anxiously awaited the restaurant’s reopening. The pink castle situated in Lakewood, Colorado, is equal parts beloved and notorious, thanks to its unique atmosphere (cliff divers, caves, gorilla and more) and poorly reviewed food. Its new owners have promised upgrades all around, but more than two years later though, only a handful of people have experienced the new Casa Bonita through a soft opening.

Still, the hype around Casa Bonita has not wavered, and it has continued making headlines for everything from its new chef and its lengthy timeline to employee dissatisfaction and a progressive pay structure. In an interview with the Daniels College of Business Newsroom, David Corsun, director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management shared his expert insight on all things Casa Bonita.

What was your initial reaction to the idea that Casa Bonita was going to be bought out by the creators of South Park and revamped? Do you think that there is an added pressure for them because it has such a reputation?

I think it’s great for Denver and Colorado. It’s an iconic restaurant, and I think it’s so cool that Trey Parker and Matt Stone came to the table to buy the place. I’ve seen Casa Bonita referred to as the Disneyland of restaurants, and it really is. You can’t just put tables and chairs, a bar, buy equipment, hire staff and then open. It just wouldn’t work, and they have the financial wherewithal to make sure that they get it right.

There have been a couple of things that are very interesting about the way they’re running the restaurant. One is that instead of just coming in and ordering your food, you buy a ticket. Is that something that is pretty novel?

It certainly is, and I think it’s smart actually, because they’re guaranteeing a certain level of revenue from every table. So, you know, they’re not going to get parties that come in and just order an appetizer and a cocktail. They’re not doing this to generate margarita and nacho tables. They are putting in a huge investment, and they won’t recoup the investment if they allow tables to be occupied by less-than-entree consumers.

One of the recent arguments we’ve seen against this approach is that it may not be family-friendly from a budget standpoint. What’s your reaction to that?

Right now, they’re pricing to manage demand. They’re smart. They’re suppressing demand by pricing that way. But when they do the new pricing, it will be even friendlier. And of course, those prices don’t include things like cocktails, so there are opportunities for the restaurant to grow revenue from that point, but there are also opportunities for people who are more budget-conscious, who still want the experience. And you have to remember you’re paying not just for the food and beverage but for the experience.

The restaurant has also done away with tipping. What are your thoughts on that?

There are a good number of restaurants in the Denver and Boulder markets now that have alternatives to traditional tipping. Some of Denver’s top restaurants are adding a service charge, or in at least one case, pricing the gratuity into the menu item cost. What this does is make it so that the operators can pay minimum wage or above and provide benefits, paid vacation and things like that. What this also does is enable the restaurateur to balance the historically imbalanced pay between front and back of house. I think this is something that’s starting to happen around the country.

Do you see a large-scale shift away from tipping happening?

Honestly, I hope so. It would be a much healthier thing societally. There are lots of side benefits that occur when you start paying people a more predictable wage. It’s a real, significant change in people’s lives. And it has produced a greater sense of teamwork in restaurants, where the front and the back of house are more cooperative. Outside of fine dining establishments, there are servers who are living in poverty. That’s just wrong.

One of the things that has also been interesting is that some Casa Bonita employees issued a list of demands related to the fact that they’re not getting enough hours to make a livable wage. What are your thoughts on that?

I certainly understand where the employees are coming from. You know, working half-time or two-thirds-time is not a tenable situation given the cost of living in this market. And I’m sure the owners of Casa Bonita do not have the intent of this being a long-term solution. So, my hope is that they’re able to fully open sooner rather than later not only for the employees, but so that more people can have the new Casa Bonita experience.