Owner anticipates an exciting future thanks to our revitalization movement.
As Greater Kansas City’s pioneering Mexican restaurant brand enters its 35th year, business couldn’t be better and fans are more loyal than ever. Owner Dave Quirarte credits his customers’ discriminating taste and points to Martin City as a symbol of what makes a good restaurant community great.
“We love it here,” says Quirarte. “We feel right at home.”
Margarita’s South is located on the east side of Holmes Road, north of 135th Street. Of course, we didn’t have to tell you that. Everyone knows exactly where to find sensational salsa and fresh guacamole in our neighborhood. Quirarte says he’s grateful for the enthusiasm that’s made his restaurant what it is today.
“Martin City has been so good to us. There’s nothing like the feeling of being surrounded by friends.”
A Fresh New Flavor Launches an Empire
It’s been a long time since Quirarte sold burritos to co-workers on the side at the General Motors plant in Kansas City, Kansas. That’s how he started back in the 1980s with the help of his amigo, Ron Abarca. Demand soared to 1,500 orders within a couple of months, so the two auto workers quit their jobs and opened the first Margarita’s location on Southwest Boulevard.
“We opened Margarita’s about the same time that the Royals won the World Series,” says Quirarte. “1985 was quite a year in Kansas City.”
Margarita’s started with just ten employees and has grown to nearly 300 across five locations. Abarca passed away recently after working with Quirarte for 34 years. Together, they realized the American dream and built one of the most successful local restaurant names in the business.
Margarita’s is widely recognized as the perfect place when you’re craving chips, salsa and of course, margaritas. The food is so good that it’s also become an expectation at grocery stores all over the area.
“I’m happy to say our Margarita’s Amigos brand salsa is the best selling salsa in Kansas City,” says Quirarte with a smile. “It even sells better than national grocery brands.”
That’s no small achievement in a crowded condiment market with endless salsa options. When Quirarte first introduced salsa to grocery store shelves over two decades ago, it was a mainly mustard and ketchup world. Since then, the retail side of his empire has expanded with spices and cheese dip that are taking it into new markets. Margarita’s Amigos products are now spreading east to store shelves outside of Kansas City.
“We really want to give the rest of the country a taste of Margarita’s,” says Quirarte. “The retail side is doing that, but our restaurants here in Kansas City remain the heart of our business.”
A Restaurant that Was Meant to Be
Margarita’s South first opened in 1995 to expand the company’s reach into South Kansas City. Times were different back then and conditions could have been better. Martin City was struggling to find its footing as a few persistent businesses, such as Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse, worked hard to keep the community’s spirit alive. Quirarte stuck with it through the early 2000s until health problems and the responsibility of multiple restaurant locations began wearing him down.
He closed Margarita’s South, tried to repurpose the building and even tried to sell it, but the economy was too weak. He kept paying for the building and its utilities for six years until push came to shove.
“I was having to move money around from other locations to pay for this building and after six years we just couldn’t keep doing that,” explains Quirarte. “I couldn’t sell the building and my health improved, so I really didn’t have a choice but to try to make a go of it again.”
Margarita’s South reopened its doors in 2014, but this time things were very different. The nation’s recession was over, the neighborhood was getting back on its feet again and people welcomed Quirarte’s return with enthusiasm.
“People were so excited! I mean it almost felt like a relief to the community. Everyone was so supportive. We had a great opening day and it has never let up. Looking back at everything, despite the struggles, I think Margarita’s South was just meant to be.”
An enormous new parking lot is another indication that Margarita’s South was meant to be. It’s now big enough to accommodate Quirarte’s crowds as well as those dining at Jack Stack Barbecue next door. If you’ve ever been frustrated by Taco Tuesday parking at other Mexican restaurants, you’ll definitely want to give Margarita’s South a try.
A private event room is also a sign of the times and a symbol of Margarita’s South’s relationship with our community. Quirarte says customers love to reserve it for all kinds of milestone events like parties, youth sports banquets, business gatherings, weddings, and yes, even divorces.
“People actually book the event room to celebrate their divorce,” says Quirarte. “I guess our food and drinks are a great way to toast new beginnings!”
Margarita’s South is also a job creator. The original staff of 40 employees in 2014 has swelled to nearly 70 and Quirarte says he’s always looking for more help.
“Our customers tip really well and I’m proud of the fact that many of our workers over the years have used their Margarita’s job to pay bills while they went to school to become doctors, dentists and even clothing designers.”
The Secrets to Success
So what exactly is it about Margarita’s that’s made it a staple of the Kansas City restaurant scene for so long? Quirarte gives credit to the atmosphere, service, his team’s catering experience and a long-standing devotion to Happy Hour. Ultimately, however, he points to the quality of his food.
“We have a following and it’s really because our food is so good. That’s not just me trying to convince you. It’s what customers tell me.”
If you assume most Mexican food is basically the same, be aware that it’s not that simple. Quirarte says there are all kinds of kitchen tricks for cutting costs, such as using imitation meats, fish, cheese and tortillas. There are even ways to give inferior guacamole ingredients a phony, fresh ‘appeal.’
“We don’t do any of that and never will,” Quirarte declares. “We don’t accept bad avocados, lettuce, tomatoes or any other produce. We send it back and tell our suppliers we always expect fresh. We pay for real, high-quality meats and cheeses even though it’s far more expensive. We’re in here cooking at 5am to time our food to be at its peak when we serve it throughout the day. All of this is why customers remain loyal. They know they’re getting quality.”
A loyal customer base becomes even more impressive when it includes celebrities like movie star Michael Douglas or the rock group U2. Lead singer Bono is such a fan that he used Margaritas’ Southwest Boulevard location as a backdrop for a U2 music video. And then there are the hometown heroes.
“Royals and Chiefs players have been a part of Margarita’s since the beginning,” says Quirarte. “So many of those guys are like family. Here in Martin City, you’ll see them come out to swing bats at Mac N Seitz and then stop by for a beer afterward. Sporting KC soccer players are our friends, too. There’s just something about sports and Margarita’s, whether you’re a player or just want to watch a game on TV.”
Aside from celebrity relationships, Quirarte focuses on regular customers at Margarita’s locations. He routinely makes the rounds, usually passing through Martin City in the afternoons, mingling with customers and looking for feedback. If you haven’t met Quirarte yet, keep an eye out for him. He’s the friendliest guy in the restaurant and wants to know what you think.
“I love greeting customers,” says Quirarte. “I ask them about their families or their golf game, whatever is going on. We have some laughs and I learn about what’s working and what’s not at my restaurants.”
Experienced Enthusiasm for Community Revitalization
The Martin City Community Improvement District (MCCID) had been hard at work for six years when Margarita’s South reopened in 2014. Quirarte could feel the community picking up momentum back then and is excited about where it’s going.
“I mean, look at what we have now. There’s such diversity and this high-tech movement going now too thanks to FishTech. And we’ve got really popular liquor stores, auto parts, motorsports, volleyball and so much more. It’s all coming together. Plus, there’s a new interest in housing with some nice developments like the apartment complex proposal for the corner of 135th and Holmes.”
Many see restaurants as the sustaining force behind Martin City’s success and Quirarte welcomes more of them. He doesn’t fear competition because he says it’s always been a good thing for Margarita’s.
“We opened on Southwest Boulevard right across from Ponaks and guess what, both restaurants thrived. Then came all of these other restaurants along the Boulevard and they’ve made it too. Then the Crossroads District came alive up the street and all of those restaurants on Summit. Everything just got better. Do you know why? Choices. Whether it’s dining, having a drink or both, people like variety. They don’t just stick with a few places. They like them all. That’s just how it works.”
Quirarte believes Martin City’s special character is powering its comeback and will make it a popular destination in the years ahead. He describes our community as an appealing blend of old and new.
“We’ve got a combination of flavors in Martin City, you know. It’s a modern feel and a traditional feel right along with it. It’s also safe and convenient for people living in South Kansas City. They’re rediscovering this wonderful place in their own backyard.”
But our ‘wonderful place’ really needs more sidewalks, bike lanes and road improvements. Quirarte believes better infrastructure is essential for fulfilling our neighborhood’s promise.
“Let me tell you about sidewalks. We just couldn’t get good sidewalks put in along the Boulevard so I put a sidewalk in myself right in front of my restaurant and suddenly we started getting walk-ins like you wouldn’t believe. It was really something. Now Kansas City is working on putting in more sidewalks and even a parking area for Boulevard restaurants. They know what it will do for the area.”
Quirarte is eager to see a similar situation unfold in Martin City. He believes improvements will give the neighborhood the kind of energy you’d expect at a First Fridays in the Crossroads.
“You put sidewalks up and down Holmes and watch what happens. I guarantee you that employees of all these businesses will walk all over and spend money. Imagine hundreds of people filling the neighborhood over lunch and through the evening. They’ll browse the shops, sample the restaurants and maybe you’ll see food trucks and street performers. All of that business is just waiting to be unlocked because right now there’s no way to walk along Holmes and driving short distances just isn’t worth it.”
Quirarte is encouraged by the dramatic transformation of 135th Street and anxious for Kansas City to get moving on an overhaul of Holmes Road. He says not only will it be great for Martin City, but local businesses deserve it.
“Business owners along Holmes are really trying to be responsible with the upkeep of their properties. I mean just look at FishTech alone. We deserve a Holmes Road that’s built for the future. Sidewalks, the road itself and all of the sewers and water lines, too. Do it all and do it right and you won’t be sorry.”
Thank you, Dave Quirarte, for doing it right at Margarita’s South and helping Martin City become a diverse destination for great food and fun. We wish Margarita’s all the best and our humble community will always remain proud to be a key ingredient in your success!