Nicole Healey and Chris Burhans have teamed up to bring back Gringo’s, a longtime downtown Cedar Rapids eatery that closed in 2013.
Burhans’ parents opened the first Gringo’s in Iowa City in 1978, expanding with the Cedar Rapids location in 1981 and into Des Moines. He grew up working there, and Healey worked at the Iowa City location in the late 1980s. The two kept in touch, and when they saw each other last fall, they started talking about an idea for a new concept that could revive the restaurant.
Gringo’s Cafe & Catering opened in late April in the Armstrong Centre, serving up counter service lunches.
A downtown lunch spot offers the owners something they were looking for — a way to get back into the restaurant world without sacrificing nights and weekends with their children.
“I’ve been in corporate America for 20-plus years, and I was ready to get back into the restaurant business,” Healey said. “I’ve always loved it, but I have a family, and it was too hard to work the late hours.”
The Armstrong Centre previously housed Austin Blues BBQ and Culata, neither of which returned after the 2016 flood. Adjacent coffee shop Coffee Emporium expanded its footprint into the seating area, and Gringo’s took over the rest of the space. Austin Blues has been revived as the food truck BBQ Barn.
The menu is smaller than it was at the former Gringo’s, and has been revamped for counter service. The fajitas, for example, won’t come sizzling on steaming platters to the table. But they still offer a full slate of burritos, tacos, tortas and more.
“This is a different concept with the same food,” Burhans said.
They are emphasizing their catering, and they plan to expand into breakfast hours soon and are working on recipes for Mexican-themed breakfast dishes such as breakfast burritos and quesadillas.
Burhans said he’s excited to be back in the business.
“I like the energy; it’s fast-paced, I like the people,” Burhans said. “And it’s all I really knew from the time I was 10.”
He remembers how the first Gringo’s opened; his father Bill Burhans, a professional piano player, was tired of constantly being on the road, away from his family. So when they moved from Denver, Colorado, to Iowa, they opened a steakhouse, where he would play piano to entertain the guests. Monday nights were slow, so they decided to try something new; once a week, they replaced the salad bar with a taco bar, using recipes that were popular in Denver but hard to find in Iowa City at the time.
The taco bar became a huge hit, and soon Monday business was booming. The inspiration for Gringo’s was born.
Bill Burhans died shortly after the Cedar Rapids Gringo’s opened, and Chris Burhans and his siblings helped their mother, Nancy Prall, keep the restaurants going, along with her business partners. In 2004, Burhans bought the Cedar Rapids location from one of those partners.
Several former Gringo’s employees have come back to work in the new location. He hopes they can recreate whatever it was that kept people coming to the restaurant for more than 30 years.
“It was special before, it can be special again,” Healey said.
She said she enjoys the interactions, with old fans returning to try the new location and with new Gringo’s customers alike.
“My voice has gone out because I’ve been talking so much,” she said. “I like the face-to-face and just meeting new people all the time.”
WHERE: Armstrong Centre, 210 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday
DETAILS: (319) 200-2777, gringoscr.com