At 72, Bumblebee Bob's had more lives than a cat: He's been a farmer, a rancher, active in the feedlot business ( "my first restaurant experience," he jokes), an environmentally-sensitive land developer, and a member of the board for several impressive Santa Fe organizations, including the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the First National Bank of Santa Fe, president of the Boys Club and, as finance director for Bruce King, a member of the board of economic development during King's term as governor ( "with little sidelines along the way," Bob laughs, "like owning tractor and car lots, plus I built a few houses in between with Beehive Builders.")
His ubiquitous nickname comes by way of the Arizona ranch he acquired in 1980, called the Bumblebee Ranch northwest of Phoenix. "It was an old-timey working ranch, 80 square miles with 30 square miles of that being designated wilderness. You couldn't take any motorized vehicles into that part of the ranch, so we used mules. It was beautiful-the altitude ranged from 1,500 to 6,500, and the landscape went from saguaro cactus to ponderosa pines."
By 1987, he'd retired and was fully enjoying his next chapter, cultivating the traveling life with his wife, BJ, and then September 11th happened.
"I really got depressed and I realized that I had to go do something." What, exactly, wasn't immediately clear, but he knew it had to do with getting active in the community again. He'd been driving through California just prior to that time with BJ and she'd said, "Pull over here! I want to show you this restaurant." It turned out to be strongly reminiscent of the roadside stands they'd visited and loved all along the Baja coast, "where there's a guy with a charcoal broiler out there serving tacos made with fresh meats, vegetables and salsas on soft corn tortillas."
Bob (whose real last name is Weil) and a business partner had recently purchased the old Taco Bell site on the corner of Jefferson Street. "We were trying to make an office building out of it," Bob says, "but I thought, why would I want to do that when I always wanted a restaurant-and I own one?" So he bought his partner out and, by the fall of 2002, he was working on the Bumblebee's Baja Grill concept. "We opened the first one in March of "03, the second in November "04 (that's the Cerrillos Road location), the third in October "05 (at Montgomery and San Mateo in Albuquerque), and the last one just opened in Nob Hill at Central and Amherst-all in less than four years!"
None of this would have been possible without Chris Galvin, chef and world champion lifter at Carl and Sandra's gym. A graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, NY, Chris grew up in the restaurant business (in fact, her father still owns a restaurant in New York). It's Chris who's responsible for all of Bumblebee's high quality menu items-she developed all the recipes. That means not only the aforementioned tacos (including those filled with mahi-mahi, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and herbed mayonnaise) but also fat burritos filled with fresh-off-the-grill beef, lamb, shrimp, mahi-mahi or chicken, a lavish shrimp salad embedded in a big bowl of greens and the Burrito de Thomas, filled with grilled asparagus and avocado.
"Without Chris, we couldn't have done it," says Bob. "We would have been in a mess without her-I didn't know anything!"
Working from what he calls a commissary concept, they prepare the sauces, seasonings, salad dressings and salsas for all four restaurants in one centralized kitchen in Albuquerque. "What we accomplish by doing this is we standardize the flavors for all the stores."
The Bumblebee concept, according to Bob, is new to the Albuquerque market. "We're already building a reputation for the best fish tacos in town," he proudly exclaims. "After two restaurants in Santa Fe, we've maxed out there. But Albuquerque offers us an opportunity to expand-we probably could easily open another four stores down there." ( "If I did that," he adds, grinning, "Chris and BJ would kill me!")
Which begs a question: Granted, the food is the same in all four restaurants, but is there a different feeling between the Santa Fe and the Albuquerque Bumblebee's?
"Not really," says Bob. "I just have such a strong sense of community with Santa Fe-I like the people, I've lived in Santa Fe all my [adult] life. I see kids in my restaurants who'd been friends with my own kids; they've grown up now and still live here. I love Santa Fe, the culture and all the opportunities-there's not a better place to live in the U.S.!"
And he employs a lot of newly-immigrated workers. "In Santa Fe, we had a woman from El Salvador who was sick as hell so Chris took her to a couple of doctors. It turned out she had a severe form of arthritis that was crippling her, and he up and gave her some medicine that made her feel much better. Another woman who works for us had a bunch of teeth that were falling out and BJ hauled her to a dentist."
Now, as a result of the two new restaurants, he's building a similar sense of expanded family in Albuquerque. "I'm getting a feel for the community. It's much more warm and welcoming for doing business. There's an aggressive, pro-business feeling in Albuquerque. The restaurant in Nob Hill is a whole new experience because it's a real neighborhood. A few weeks ago, I went to buy some tile at Talavera on Rio Grande and the guy there said, "I've lived in Nob Hill for ten years. I eat, shop and recreate there. We walk everywhere, and we're looking forward to your restaurant as a new place to try.' Another guy, another restaurant owner nearby us in Nob Hill, told me, "We're glad you're opening here. I'll eat there, you come eat here-I'm tired of my own food!'"
One seemingly incongruous thread that all four restaurants share is: jazz. In 1989, two years after Bob had supposedly "retired," he started promoting jazz in Santa Fe, booking concerts and jazz parties, and eventually helping to found the Santa Fe Jazz Foundation, a charitable group that helps musicians, who typically have no health insurance, deal with various health challenges. (Bob interrupts himself to ask, "How do you make a million in jazz?" He pauses, then answers: "Inherit two million!") His great affinity for the art was born back in St. Louis when he was in high school. "I was the guy who booked the bands," he says. "Now we have live world class jazz groups on Saturday and Monday nights at the Guadalupe restaurant, and we plan to have jazz starting up in the Albuquerque restaurants soon, too, as well as Spanish classical guitar at the Cerrillos restaurant on Saturday nights. It's fun to make the gigs and it's great to hear the music!"
This summer, Bob and the Santa Fe Jazz Foundation are teaming up with Tom Gralnick, who runs the Outpost Performance Space, and Bob Martin at the Lensic to host a brand new jazz festival from July 21-29.
"I know-it's crazy!" he says, laughing at himself. "What with the restaurants, I'm already working eight days a week, 28 hours a day. But I'm still going strong. And my family lives forever-I still probably have about a third of my life left. I'll be working till I'm 90."
He says that like that's a good thing. And, as a matter of fact, it is. For us, at least.
In Santa Fe, visit Bumble Bee's at 301 Jefferson (505.820.2862) and 3777 Cerrillos (505.988.3278). Both restaurants are open from 7am to 9pm Monday through Friday and 11am to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday.
In Albuquerque, it's 5031 Montgomery NE (505.837.2862) and 3423 Central NE (505.262.2862). The Montgomery Bumble Bee's is open daily from 11am to 9pm. Call for hours for the site on Central.