When we locals were driving down the gently sloping hill into Questa center and saw, tacked up on the front of Wildcat’s Den, a red vinyl “Retiring, thanks for the memories!” sign, a distinct lack of cars in the parking lot, and “CLOSED” spelled out in black letters on the Den’s tall marquee, we knew something was up. And it was awful. Our hearts sank.
Then came questions: is it really over? Will someone else carry on the legacy of Questa’s longest continuously operating restaurant? How about the building? Will it be sold, or might the restaurant be leased? Was this a sudden or a long-contemplated decision by Jake and Jolt and the LaFore family?
Questa Del Rio News wanted to find out more and we had a chat with Jake LaFore, the last in his family line to own and operate this iconic Questa restaurant.
Jake wasn’t planning on retiring, but when his husband Jolt was at the Questa Credit Union one Saturday and saw a sign indicating they were hiring, the ball was set in motion—things suddenly came clear to him that he was ready to call it quits. It was now or never. Just like that!
Jake knows he’s too young, at age 58, to retire entirely, but he WAS ready to retire from the Den, and so applied for the QCU job. “The nail in the coffin was that they hired me,” says Jake. “It’s hard, but it’s great to leave on a high note, having survived the pandemic, the closure of the mine, and all the other changes in Questa.”
So Jake is a teller at the CU, and calls it a nice change of pace and challenging. “I’m not smelling like burgers and fries when I come home. I’m happy, but my dogs aren’t.”
Customers over the years have been very dedicated fans. They would drive in from Colorado to Espanola. Jake exclaims, “One couple from Albuquerque told me recently that they planned their Saturdays around driving up to Questa, having their meal here, and driving home again!”
We’ve seen the Den transform over the years, but the family recipes and care in preparation have always been in place.
When it was first opened, it was a drive-through (thus the name Wildcat’s Den Drive-Through) with a takeout window on the building’s side. “That didn’t work too well,” says Jake.
It was always a whole-family endeavor, starting with his parents and was later managed by his aunt, his brother, and then… He got a call in 2005 from his father, asking him to step up and take over the Den. “At the time I was working with American Express’s corporate travel department in Arizona. And now here it is, 16 years later and I’m still here—it’s like a lifetime—we are so fortunate to have had loyal customers.”
Wooden siding gave it a nice facelift (and natural insulation) about four years ago, and before that new windows were installed in front for walkup and takeout. Upgrading went on inside too, but the original fixtures that came with the building provide an unmistakable atmosphere: the booths and light fixtures remain.
Did you know? Previously the building was in Espanola, and they bought it and moved it to Questa! When Jake’s parents were first at the Santa Fe office of the Small Business Administration in 1980, for the loan that would allow them to open the Den, someone there knew that the local Burger Express restaurant was for sale, complete with all the restaurant fixtures and appliances they would need. So, they bought it, loaded it, and hauled it to Questa. Jake, in junior high at the time, was riding on the morning schoolbus, seeing a lot of activity on the lot that was to become the location of the Den. “When we got out of school in the afternoon, there was a building sitting there! That was amazing!” he recalls.
It was a turnkey operation then, and is now, as well—a turnkey business for someone with the commitment and desire. Jake says, “You can make a good living, but it takes hard work and commitment. Some people are intimidated because they know it’s a busy place, and recruiting and maintaining a workforce in Questa is an ongoing challenge, too.” It takes five people to run the Den, he tells me.
The family definitely does not want the building to sit there, vacant.
They are open to “tons of ideas,” says Jake, to keep it going—buyers who might continue the legacy and carry it on with the same name and recipes. The name is trademarked, no one else in New Mexico can use it. They’ve had locals interested in leasing, but Jake is only interested in buyers at this point.
So… Could it be an opportunity for a commercial kitchen for the town? Would the village or the Questa Economic Development Fund be interested in it as an economic development asset? Could it be a short-term popup kitchen? Could it be part of the Questa High School culinary arts program? Possibilities abound.
Says Jake to all the communities in the Questa Del Rio News readership and beyond:
“Thanks for the memories! We want to let the community know how grateful we are for their support over these past 41 years. The co-founders—my mom (still going strong), my dad—then my aunt, other family members, then me: we all kept it going, and Jolt! helping out for the last 15 years.”
Want to see the Wildcat’s Den reincarnated? Give Jake a call, at (575) 779-1212. But hurry, since come January, a realtor may be called in to help with selling it. For now, the LaFore family wants to hear from you!