Photography By Joni Schrantz
DANA RODRIGUEZ IS not afraid to tell it how it is. From promoting transparency in her businesses to proudly proclaiming that she cares more about making her employees happy than her customers (because if you take care of the employees, they’ll take care of customers), Rodriguez is a bright light in Denver. After 20 years, she now co-owns and operates two restaurants; recently launched an eponymous tequila and mezcal brand called Doña Loca; and has plans to open Cantina Loca, a new concept designed to showcase her tequila brand, in LoHi in the fall.
A CHEF’S STORY, FROM KITCHEN TO SPIRITS
Rodriguez grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, in a home without electricity or running water. She learned retail and butchery from her father’s businesses, but was looking for new opportunities. In 1998, Rodriguez emigrated to Denver and got a job as a dishwasher at the newly opened Panzano. There, she moved through all aspects of the restaurant, from dishwasher to prep cook, pasta maker and baker, before becoming sous chef. With passion, intelligence and a strong work ethic, Rodriguez went on to become a sous chef at Rioja and chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendome, along the way learning what it truly means to run a kitchen.
In late 2012, she became executive chef and co-owner of Work & Class in Denver with Tony Maciag. In 2015 and 2016, she received nominations in the Best Chef Southwest category by the James Beard Foundation. Rodriguez opened Super Mega Bien, a dim sum-style restaurant featuring Pan-Latin cuisine, with Maciag in 2018.
Then, in 2020, COVID hit the restaurant industry hard—and Rodriguez and her businesses were not immune.
“In the restaurant industry, the damage on the brain, it was a lot,” she admitted. “Sometimes we will say, ‘Oh, we’re fine. We’re going to make it work’ because it’s in our nature to always be fighters. But the reality is, like at one point, I almost got sick.”
Worried about how to pay her employees and keep everything above water, the decision was made to close the restaurants from December 2020 through May 2021. Today, both Work & Class and Super Mega Bien are open again, but Rodriguez said that the struggle is not over. She’s predicting that it could take up to two years to get back on track; with rising costs for ingredients and the challenge of finding staff, it’s going to be a long, slow recovery.
But Rodriguez seems to have an inexhaustible supply of positivity.
“We always make it work,” she said. “When the whole thing happened and we closed the restaurant, I go, ‘What can I do? I’m going to start promoting the mezcal and tequila.’”
BRINGING THE FARM-TO-TABLE SENSIBILITY TO THE BAR
Doña Loca is Rodriguez’s brand of tequila and spirits. It’s currently served at about 60 restaurants and can be found in 20 liquor stores. It’s just another example of Rodriguez’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Rodriguez said that she loves being a chef and cooking for people, but she realized that though customers cared about the origin of their protein and produce, when it came to beverages they were less picky.
“They sit in a bar and ... they don’t care what they put in their body based on drinks,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not like good food. People don’t have that consciousness. People order the cheap (expletive) ... or they order the super high-end because they think, ‘Oh, the most expensive must be the best, right?’ It made me think that people need education about sustainable drinks, too.”
Rodriguez returned to her native Mexico to work with a small, family-owned palenque (distillery) to produce Doña Loca mezcal and tequila. She went to many farms, visiting with the owners before she found the family that she clicked with, that were doing it the “right way.” Brothers Juan and Marco from Enrique Diaz Cruz distillery and Rodriguez were a match. From planting to bottling, the Oaxacan distillery makes Doña Loca mezcals in the traditional, artisanal way. The brothers are the third generation of distillers, and though some traditional methods—like using cow skin to distill—have been updated, the quality of the spirits remains exceptional. It’s small-batch in every way: The bottles are all handmade by local women and the labels are handmade from discarded plant material.
Currently, Doña Loca offers three types of tequila: blanco, reposado and añejo, each of which is aged for different lengths of time. The mezcal comes from three types of agave varieties: espadín, tobalà and tepeztate. Each grows to maturity in five to 30 years; the result is flavors with a range of complexity.
Cantina Loca, which will be located at Zuni Street and West 29th Avenue, and which Rodriguez hopes will open this fall, will bring the story and flavor of Doña Loca to the forefront. Rodriguez said that her restaurants have open kitchens, and now she’s going to apply that concept to her bar.
Rodriguez said Cantina Loca will have food in the style you can find in Mexico City, but the focus will be on the tequila and mezcal tasting room, and on educating customers on the spirits. Guests will be able to watch videos of the distilling process, and bartenders will share the story of the people and the community that create the spirit that is being sipped.
“A lot of celebrities, they make brands of mezcal and tequila and they are never there to see how hard those people work, how poor they live—they can barely afford certain things. They do all the hard work and then here they [the other brands] sell the booze for a lot of money and (the people) don’t benefit from that,” Rodriguez said. “So I’m like, ‘There has got to be a better way to do things.’”
Education in the U.S. about how the product is made is one step; taking care of the people in Mexico who do the work and take care of the land are other steps.
The bottom line for Rodriguez is giving back to the communities in which she lives and works.
“When it comes to community, it’s like, ’What else could we do (to make a difference)?’ I need more hours in the day,” she said with a laugh. “But that’s the exciting part, right? It’s like, what do you want your legacy to be ... . You know, you’re not going to change the world, but you can make little differences in some people’s lives. And that’s so important to me.”
Katie Coakley is a Colorado-based freelance writer who thinks all mezcals should be small batch. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and online for such publications as Business Insider, 5280 and Outside.
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