CEO of Casa Bonita’s parent discusses discrimination lawsuit, reopening

Casa Bonita has operated in Lakewood since 1974. (Thomas Gounley photo)

The CEO of Casa Bonita’s parent company said Monday that the Lakewood eatery will reopen, and a recent discrimination lawsuit filed by a 76-year-old diver against the restaurant represents “an egregious abuse of the legal system.”

Bob Wheaton, who leads Star Buffet Inc., told BusinessDen that the Mexican restaurant with a cult following remains closed due to capacity restrictions, but “our plans are to reopen.”

Casa Bonita has been shuttered since the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring. Months without communication from restaurant ownership have prompted an answer-less “Will Casa Bonita ever reopen?” piece in Westword, along with consternation in online forums.

“Given the kind of business it is, given the components of the business, it requires a fairly substantial number of people to come through the building,” Wheaton said, noting that amusement park Elitch Gardens also didn’t open at all this summer.

Wheaton said that, at this point, he doesn’t expect capacity restrictions to ease until a vaccine is being administered.

Casa Bonita has operated in Lakewood since 1974. Its location at 6715 W. Colfax Ave. is all that remains of what was once a small chain.

The restaurant — which has a cult following due to appearances on the TV show “South Park” — is known for its atmosphere more than the cuisine it serves cafeteria-style. Diners are treated to regular performances, including divers jumping next to a 30-foot-tall indoor waterfall modeled after the cliffs of Acapulco, Mexico.

Sam Hernandez

In September, Casa Bonita was sued by Samuel Hernandez, who said he is the only American to twice win the World Class Diving Championships and a former winner of the Acapulco World Cliff Diving Championships. Hernandez, now 76, said he wasn’t allowed to audition for a diving job at Casa Bonita due to his age.

Wheaton said there’s more to the story than the original lawsuit let on. Hernandez contacted Casa Bonita at least six times in 2018 seeking “financial support,” not a job, he said.

“In one particular case, he said I’d wear a diving suit emblazoned with Casa Bonita when I do my next dive in Mexico,” Wheaton said. “He had different approaches, but the essence was financial contributions to assist in his attempt to break a world record.”

An April 2019 Instagram post by Hernandez said he was training to be “Acapulco’s oldest cliff diver.”

Wheaton said it doesn’t make sense that Hernandez would have wanted a job at Casa Bonita, given “he lived 500 miles away in Las Cruces, New Mexico.”

According to Hernandez, in May 2019, a Casa Bonita employee texted him saying it would “be an honor to have you apart of our dive team.” Wheaton said that individual was recently hired and unfamiliar with Hernandez’s pattern of solicitation.

An interior image of Casa Bonita included in the lawsuit. (File photo)

“We had a new director of entertainment in 2019 who didn’t initially have the history that the former director did,” he said.

Hernandez also claimed in his lawsuit that a Casa Bonita manager told him “you are too old, and I can’t understand why you want to be employed by Casa Bonita.” Wheaton said that never happened.

Wheaton said the company submitted affidavits and emails supporting its side to the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and expressed disappointment that the state office “seemed to ignore that support” and granted Hernandez the right to sue Casa Bonita. He declined to provide the submitted materials to BusinessDen.

Wheaton expressed confidence in winning against Hernandez in court, calling the case “cut and dry.”

“It’s such an egregious abuse of the legal system, and the facts are so well established,” he said.

The lawsuit, originally filed in Jefferson County District Court, was moved to federal court last month.

Claire Hunter and Jesse Fishman of the Denver office of HKM Employment Attorneys are representing Hernandez. They did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Abigail Brown, Rebecca DeCook and Caleena Braig of Moye White are representing Casa Bonita.

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