Some of us can’t remember Tulsa without RICARDOS. The Tex-Mex restaurant, famous for its chile rellenos and enchiladas, opened in 1975. And owner Thomas Hunter has been there nearly every step of the way, working for RICARDOS 38 of the 45 years it has been opened.
Hunter started as a 14-year-old dishwasher, working his way up to bus boy, line cook, manager and eventually owner. He earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Oklahoma State University before diving into a full career at the restaurant.
Hunter also serves as second vice-chairman of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association and has helped steer other restaurants through the tough times of the COVID-19 crisis. We talked to him earlier this summer.
Do you enjoy cooking at home?
I really enjoy cooking at home, but also like jumping on the line here at the restaurant to keep my skills up.
What three things are always in your refrigerator?
Bacon, eggs and RICARDOS queso. I can eat breakfast for any meal. Plus queso goes over so many things I already have in my freezer, like riced broccoli or riced cauliflower.
When you’re not at RICARDOS, where do you like to eat out?
When I eat out, I prefer a locally owned restaurant like RICARDOS. Charleston’s, Freddie’s in Sapulpa, Shogun. And for a little road trip, Pete’s Place in Krebs is worth the drive.
How was RICARDOS impacted by coronavirus?
When we had to close our dining rooms, we were able to really focus on to-go business. We have new packaging (such as to-go containers), and I feel we are much better at it than before all this happened. Our guests were not to be denied our food. They really blessed us with business and gracious tips to my employees.
How would you describe the impact of COVID-19 on area restaurants? And how have you seen restaurant owners and workers pull together during this time?
This has been a trying time for so many businesses. Restaurants were hit hard because of the service we give our guests. Once you take that away, cash flow dries up. It’s hard to pay vendors and employees when that happens.
The Oklahoma Restaurant Association really stepped up. They have been helping its restaurant members and even nonmembers on a daily basis. We receive regular updates on regulations and best business practices, plus info on loans and grants.
So many local guests and businesses also blessed restaurants by buying gift certificates. Many of those were donated to health care workers. December is our biggest month for gift sales, and we nearly doubled that in April.
What are your thoughts on the future of Oklahoma restaurants going forward?
I’m extremely hopeful that our industry will bounce back stronger than ever. This crisis has really tested my faith. God has not abandoned us and will take us through this.
I live in an amazing city and state. Our guests are very loyal and giving. Thank you, Tulsa, for standing behind your local restaurants.