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Duran’s is the Best Prescription for a New Mexican Food Craving

Episode 82

090122 podcast durans

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Duran Central Pharmacy has been around more than 80 years, but it’s more than just a place to pick up a prescription. It also houses a specialty gift shop and an established New Mexican restaurant that hasn’t changed its menu in more than 50 years. But that consistency doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past. Duran’s owner Mona Ghattas has kept what works—the food—but rebranded and renovated to keep up with the times.

On the Yelp Blog: Get more tips from Mona on how the beloved diner evolved effectively and created a long-lasting community.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions. Let’s hear what’s behind this week’s review.

NICOLE: It’s funny how TV and media make you think that pregnancy is this golden, beautiful thing and you’re floating and you have these strange cravings. But the truth is they should really define pregnancy as a unique experience where everything changes. And so for me, being older and pregnant, 37 and pregnant, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not cravings. It’s a demand that this little bean in my belly is making an absolute demand of me that they’re only going to eat a specific thing. And if you dare to eat anything else, get ready for the payback.

EMILY: Yelp Elite reviewer Nicole O. suffered from extreme morning sickness during her first three months of pregnancy and couldn’t keep any food down, except the bean and cheese burrito from Duran Central Pharmacy, a family-owned pharmacy slash boutique slash restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Duran’s recently celebrated its 80th year in business and is equally known for the pharmacy upfront as it is the New Mexican-themed restaurant in the back. That distinction of NEW Mexican—not Mexican or Tex Mex—is important to Duran’s and the people who love it, including Nicole.

NICOLE: Everybody in New Mexico who’s from New Mexico, we know that red chili is not made the same. Your mom does not make the same as your grandma. No two stores make it alike. Duran’s has a really unique red chili. It is not too hot. It is enough to where somebody maybe from Wisconsin could try it without their mouth burning on fire.

It has a great, garlicky, savory flavor to it, and my body just wanted those beans. So I decided to switch up my menu options for the first time in 22 years. Instead of getting a torpedo, I got their burrito, bean, and cheese burrito with red chili and I added the papitas, the potatoes, to it. And it was so good that the next thing you know, we’re looking at our credit card and we’re spending two hundred and sixty, two hundred eighty per month on burritos from Duran’s and that’s the one thing my body was holding onto, holding down. Baby was happy. I was happy. And so at that point I could care less if I was spending a thousand dollars a month on Duran’s. It was holding. I felt good. And that’s where I am and I’m still currently—like talking about it right now makes me want Duran’s.

EMILY: Nicole has been going to Duran’s since her high school days. More on that funny origin story later in our episode. Sometimes, reviewers have only been to an establishment once, and their review reflects just that single experience. Others, like Nicole, have years—if not decades—of visits to shape their review of a business. One isn’t better than the other—they’re just different perspectives but often result in the same 5-star rating. We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll listen to Nicole’s review:

NICOLE: Pregnancy is scary. Cravings are strange. Duran’s hits the spot and it’s the same authentic standard since my high school days. Happy Valentine’s Day. Really though, this pregnancy had me eating Duran’s two to three times per week.

The freshness of the tortillas or torpedo, the-not-too hot chili, fresh beans, or sometimes rolled enchiladas have been everything to me. The boyfriend loves his Christmas bean burrito with added potatoes. Even the garnish is fresh. I used to come here in the early 2000s with my high school boyfriend because everything was fresh. You cannot beat the warm fresh tortilla with melted butter. Nothing has changed in terms of quality, quantity, or the bang for your buck. I keep telling myself to get pictures of the food, but it’s too good—I forget. From dining in to taking it curbside, the quality does not change when you’re looking for comfort, New Mexico-style food—Duran’s hits the spot.

The fact that you can trust them to stay New Mexico-true is a cherry on top. Ten outta 10. I will be going here for the next 20 years just as I’ve come here for the last 20 years.

EMILY: Owner Mona Ghattas has worked at Duran’s since she was five years old, alongside her father who bought the pharmacy from original owner Pete Duran. Back in the day, almost every pharmacy had a soda fountain in the back, and Duran’s was no different.

MONA: All over the country, those little soda fountains started closing down because they took up a lot of real estate in the pharmacy and they weren’t making any money.

And my father, who was a bit of a foodie at heart, really was reluctant to let it go. So he started trying different things. My mother at the time helped in the business. She would cook a meal, and they would serve it at the soda fountain for lunch, a luncheon special. And they were trying all different kinds of things.

And there were a couple of women that worked in the soda fountain, and they were of Hispanic origin, and they started making chili and it turned out that the chili, the enchilada day, was the most popular luncheon day. So they felt like, oh, we’ve hit on something. So my dad started working with the women back there, and they started tweaking things and making different recipes, et cetera.

And before you know it, the restaurant was quite popular. Back in those days, at the Little Theater, there was a guy named Bernie Thomas, and he was the head of the Little Theater and he had lots of connections in Hollywood. So every time stars would come in, he’d bring him to Duran’s to eat because it was a little bit of a novelty. And so more and more, word got out and locals started coming and it was very, very popular. And then in 1975, we moved to the current location. Pete Duran wanted to sell the building, and my dad didn’t wanna buy it. We were outgrowing it. And so he built the current Duran’s where we are today.

I took over in 2000 and then that’s where I blew up the store a little bit because we were getting to be a little bit tired. We didn’t have a website, all that kind of stuff. So I really got to work and started working on branding and website and all that kind of stuff. And here we are.

EMILY: It seems to go against most long-term business plans to change absolutely nothing about your business products and services over the course of half a century, but that’s exactly what has made Duran’s so successful. They really embrace their history and the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. For them, it works.

MONA: Everybody’s got their favorite. We New Mexicans are very quirky. We land on a new Mexican fare that we like, and we swear by it. And whoever that is, that’s the right way to make it.

So if you make huevos rancheros with a tortilla under it, that’s what I expect. If you don’t, then I’m disappointed. And so she really picked up on that—everybody’s got their certain favorites. We do have a large customer base of locals for sure. And they never deviate from the menu.

They always order the same thing. And I think she even touched on it for a long time. She only ordered one thing off the menu forever and ever and ever, and then she branched out. And it’s interesting because all my wait staff know the locals by what they order. Huevos rancheros over easy, green with a splash of red. Whatever it is, they know them by their order, not so much by their name.

Lots of chefs eat at our restaurant. There’s even a book about the favorite places that chefs eat, and we’re in there. We’ve gotten great publicity. So then we’ve gotten lots of tourists and we are near Old Town. So that’s also an attraction. So that’s been helpful. Tourists like it because it’s a quirky little place.

They can come in and they can get a vaccine, they can do a little shopping and then they can eat. We’ve had a lot of people do that. And we’re grateful for the business we have.

EMILY: The sense of familiarity is something Duran’s patrons really embrace and is one of the biggest reasons for the success of the restaurant. In fact, customers like Nicole have come to depend on Duran’s to help with major milestones in their lives.

NICOLE: One of the things that draws you back as a New Mexican to New Mexico is our food. Our food is a huge part of our culture. It’s a part of who we are. When we’re not feeling good we want a bowl of pozole, right? When we’re happy or we’re having a party, we want our enchiladas rolled. We want fresh onion on top. We wanna go somewhere where we know that what we’re getting is what we would expect our mom or our grandma to make. And again, though, our mom and grandma cook differently, at the end of the day, what is going to fill our bodies makes us feel warm inside.

It’s like getting a hug from the inside. It’s like walking into that house that you smell something and it smells exactly the way your grandma used to make it and boom, it takes you right back to that moment on Thanksgiving or Christmas. And specifically, if you’ve ever lost somebody, you know how visceral the moment can be.

When you walk into some place that smells familiar, it brings you back to love. It brings you back to fullness. It opens your heart. And in this case it makes you drool, right? That’s what going into Duran’s: that moment of, ‘this is what I want and I know it’s gonna hit the spot and it’s never failed me.’ When have we ever left our mom’s house and not felt that love of that hug, right, that we sought? And so it’s one of those moments. We all have different tastes. We all have unique families. Duran’s is that place you can go to get that comfort.

EMILY: That’s not to say NOTHING has changed in Duran’s since moving to the current location in 1965. Every business can use a refresh of venue, branding, or merchandising to keep up with the times, so long as you keep what works and update what doesn’t.

MONA: I’m a pharmacist so I have a love of pharmacy and I’ve always championed pharmacy and tried to make it better. When I took over, I realized that we really were a little bit falling by the wayside and technology. I came in and I really got to work. I wanted to keep the flavor of Duran’s. I wanted to keep the pharmacy. I wanted to keep the front end, but I wanted to update it and brand it. So I found a branding company and we worked hard figuring out the theme or the vibe we wanted and we wanted to remain quirky because we’ve always been quirky because there’s not very many restaurants inside a pharmacy.

We worked hard on our culture. We got new fixtures. I just wanted to make it a little bit newer, looking a little bit more updated. We started looking for more interesting merchandise. We got rid of some of the big-box type merchandise. We got rid of school supplies and we narrowed our pharmacy offerings to more interesting, more apothecary boutique-type pharmacy offerings.

We just kept the same menu, essentially. We didn’t change anything in the restaurant because that wasn’t really broken. People want consistency when they go out someplace to eat—they want consistency. They’re not so concerned about if we have to raise the prices a little bit or whether we change the plates or the tabletops are a little bit different. They want their consistent food.

And so we tried really hard to stay with that. We have a really good culture. A lot of my staff has been with me for a very, very long time. Some of them have come and gone. COVID changed a lot of things. We had to really change things up during COVID. But we did and we survived.

EMILY: The pandemic forced a number of businesses into a pivot-or-perish situation, and luckily Duran’s survived. While not necessarily built for take-out—they’re in the back of a retail pharmacy, after all—Mona made sure they could adjust to the new realities of the restaurant industry by listening to her staff and trusting them to use their strengths and knowledge to make the needed changes.

MONA: The pandemic hit and we didn’t do much in to-go, in that arena. I think about 3% of our business might have been to-go because we were always pretty jamming, and people wanted to come in, and so the pandemic hit and we were just like, ‘Oh, what are we gonna do?’

We closed for a couple of weeks. I’ve got great staff again. My kids are young-ish, they’re in their late twenties. And so my staff, my kids, everybody was working really hard. How can we make things work? They put their heads together and they said: ‘We’ve gotta have an online presence. This is what’s gonna happen here.’ I’m not technologically that savvy. And I was like, ‘Do it, just do it, whatever you guys think, do it.’ I like to give my staff autonomy and let them make some decisions. And they did and they worked on it. They figured out the page, they got things going. The restaurant manager got to work and figured out how we could do takeout and had an assembly line and what kind of containers we’re gonna need and this and that.

And so that’s what we did. I’m not afraid of change and I embraced change and that’s what we had to do, so I was fortunate. We just got to work and we opened a back door. It used to be sort of a fire exit type of thing. We changed the door to make it an entrance so people could get their to-go orders or we could run it out to the car. But we knew we had to keep the quality the same. And so I was very adamant: We’re not gonna change anything except the container that you get your food in, so that’s what we did.

EMILY: Duran’s made the hard pivot to take-out, and it worked mainly because of Mona’s unwavering commitment to delivering the same quality food. Their survival was also bolstered by Duran’s foothold within the community, among both their customers and other small businesses. Because they’re such an established part of Albuquerque, the community rallied to support them in their time of need.

Mona and her father before her believe that working within your community is extremely important to the success of not just her business, but the other small businesses around Duran’s.

MONA: It’s important. For one thing, when you shop local, more money stays in the community. There’s been lots of studies done on it. If you shop at big box, a percentage of those monies go outta state to their corporate headquarters. And so I think it’s very, very important to support local businesses.

The other thing is, If I’m strong, you’ll be strong. And if you are strong, I will be strong. I don’t consider other local businesses my competitors—I feel like they’re fellow collaborators, and I try to promote other local businesses as much as I can. Because if they’re strong, then I’m gonna be strong, and our community’s gonna be.

We’re the ones that donate to the little leagues or the schools. We’re the ones that are there when there’s a crisis. We’re the ones that step up and start seeing what we can do. We all stick together. I know a lot of other local business owners. And we try really hard to promote each other because we want Albuquerque to be the best that it can be. So we have to get involved. We have to serve on boards and we have to attend meetings and things like that because we want our community to be better. And so we have to make relationships with all those people that can make those changes.

EMILY: Nicole agrees wholeheartedly, and her reviews reflect her sense of loyalty to small businesses and to the people who support them.

NICOLE: There’s a lot of reasons. One is that obviously in a post-COVID or still COVID society, in high inflation, the average person has very little disposable income. And so if you know somebody only has very little disposable income, that affects both supply and demand and in terms of—and I’ve got a master’s in business—in terms of the supply side. If you have a family member or somebody who owns a business, they’re trying to figure out how to bring business in when people have limited income. And on the demand side, we really don’t wanna be spending our money at places that are not worth it.

And then of course there’s bad reviews. You’re always gonna have some places that have bad reviews. And that primarily comes from me being a world traveler. So I’ve traveled all over the world. I was in the military when I was 19.

Right before the pandemic hit, me and my partner went to France and Austria and Switzerland. So we’ve traveled, and I rely heavily on reviews specifically when I travel. So if you don’t know someone, and you’re going to a place or a state or a country, or even a different side of town that you’ve never been to before, you’re really just throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks.

In a time where inflation is high, and the dollar needs to stretch, you really don’t wanna leave disappointed. So whether I leave excited after an experience or disappointed after an experience, I try to leave a review. Why? Because my taste is my taste. And if you find similarities between me, then maybe you follow me.

Maybe you go to Duran’s, and you don’t like it. So then you go look at my reviews and you realize, ‘Okay, well I’m not gonna go there. She really liked that. She really liked that.’ So it’s a guide. Just for me, it’s that biggest thing. It’s that beacon, when you’re a traveler, just being able to give somebody else a heads up. And so for me, reviewing is not just a service to myself or the business, but to others.

And when I say to myself—it’s because sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Have we eaten here before?’ And then I’ll go to my Yelp and I’ll look, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, oh, it wasn’t the place that I disliked. It was the server. It must have been having a bad day. Let’s give it another shot.’ But there’s a big difference if your server’s having a bad day and you wanna give it another shot versus if the food is just horrible, right? There’s really no stepping back from that, unless you try a different dish.

EMILY: Of course, every small business owner has to deal with negative reviews as well as the positive ones. That’s just the nature of reviews. But consumers are smart and they don’t necessarily trust businesses with 100% 5-star reviews, so having a negative review isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What matters most is how a business owner responds.

MONA: Well, reviews, that’s a slippery slope, right? Because I can’t say, ‘Oh, reviews are stupid or blah, blah, blah.’ Because honestly, I get reviews. Everybody looks at reviews. I mean, a lot of times you get people that are just, ‘Oh, it was horrible. It tasted like gravy or whatever.’ Well, gimme some more. What do you mean? What were you expecting? Sometimes I have to take it, just, ‘Okay, let’s read through.’ Somebody reviews and says that chile relleno was horrible. Well, I don’t serve chile relleno, who are you talking about?

So that’s frustrating, right? It’s frustrating when there’s something incorrect on there. We have a hostess now, but years ago we didn’t have a hostess, and they’d say, ‘Well, the hostess was mean to me.’ We don’t have a hostess. So that’s hard when there’s some incorrect information.

I try to correct it in a nice way. We have our bad days. There’s no doubt. My servers are off or the cook forgot to put onions and missed something or missed something on a special order. We have our bad days. I think people need to realize that and not be so quick to jump. Nothing frustrates me more than a reviewer that gives a bad review and it’s their one and only review. Who are you? There’s a lot of people that give a lot of good and bad. But I always try to look for the positive. I would rather call the business and say, ‘Hey, I get this or this should work out.’

I just know because I’m a small business owner and I know what it’s like. We don’t get it right every time. We try really hard. But if you have a real beef about something, call the person. Many times we’ve gotten reviews and I’ve responded: ‘I’m sorry, we don’t meet your expectations. Give me a call. Let’s talk about it.’ Never calls. They don’t wanna do a face-to-face. Don’t wanna tell me what was truly wrong.

I think [a customer] was disappointed once and we addressed it and she called and we talked it over and we explained our position. We apologized if there was a discrepancy. And she came back. So reviews are difficult. But I do think people should look for more positive and they shouldn’t be so quick to give a negative review. I think they should give the place a few more tries before they spout off on that.

EMILY: Duran’s is the kind of restaurant that sees multiple generations of families in and out of the doors. As Nicole mentioned, she’s been going to Duran’s for more than twenty years, getting the same dish, and seeing the same staff. Her first impression of this New Mexican food haven was as memorable for the experience as it was for the food.

NICOLE: Duran’s pharmacy has been a big part of my life for one of the largest sections of my life. I had started dating my first long term boyfriend, Daniel, and he wanted to ditch to go eat. This is probably 2000. And he takes me to this pharmacy. And all you see is a pharmacy. When you walk in it’s pharmaceuticals, it’s medicine, it’s a touristy place. There’s knicknacks, really, really strange oddity items that you can buy. And I’m thinking, ‘What are we going to eat here?’ And then he takes me to the back and in this little nook. There’s this restaurant and the restaurant is really quaint and really cozy.

There’s a little bar section of it. He said we were gonna eat there and the menu has always in my history been the same—very small, very set. And at that time, there were no substitutions, right? And so you had to be very specific on what you wanted. And when I tried it for the first time I got a torpedo. I’ll never forget such a unique name.

Torpedo is their homemade tortilla with mashed potatoes and red gravy and cheese, and they just put it in an oven and melt it. It was so good that the next day—a different period of course—I asked my boyfriend Daniel if he wanted to ditch and back we went to Duran’s. So my first experience with Duran’s was being shocked, right?

Obviously skipping school, then being shocked. Thinking, ‘Where are we gonna eat in this like a knick knack store?’ And then just being absolutely elated at the twist on New Mexican food that this little literal hole in the wall inside of this pharmacy was offering to us.

EMILY: As it turns out, Nicole was just the latest in a long line of students who ditched class to eat at Duran’s, which makes me think it may have had a bit of an impact on the public school system in Albuquerque.

MONA: I have to tell you, the funny story is when Nicole talked about ditching high school, I had to laugh. Because when I was in high school, my father owned the pharmacy, and of course I would ditch high school as well. And I would bring my friends to come and eat at my dad’s pharmacy. All of my high school friends were like, ‘Hey, let’s go to Duran’s to eat.’ We used to ditch school periodically to come and eat exactly what she did. I’ve worked here for a long, long time. I was chief bagger when I was five years old and chief duster, but I’ve seen people grow up in the pharmacy.

So I’ve known grandparents, parents, kids, grandkids, and now great grandkids. They’ve all come through the pharmacy. So there’s been generations of families that have been shopping at Duran’s ,and I know a lot of them, and it’s lovely.

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