Summary — A half century ago, Jerry Sturm was looking for his next act following a long pro-football career. He launched The South, a casual TexMex restaurant and bar, but what he and wife Deb really created was a community of patrons and employees that would continue for generations.
Time to read: 7 minutes
For restaurant owners, 2020 was not the greatest year to celebrate a major anniversary. One such owner, proprietor of The South Restaurant Deb Sturm, found herself adapting to a situation she never would have envisioned.
“We were finalizing plans for our 50th anniversary six months beforehand,” Deb says. “We wanted to go back to our very first menu from 1970.”
Unfortunately, by the time The South’s anniversary date arrived, the restaurant was operating on a takeout-only basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news was, this restaurant was built tough.
The South was first opened for business on May 1, 1970, by Deb’s late husband, Jerry Sturm, a former professional football player for teams like the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos.
“My husband opened The South when he was still with the NFL,” Deb explains. “Back then, the pay scale for players wasn’t the same as it is today. They had off-season jobs to support their families and whatnot. Jerry knew he needed something to retire to, so he leased the property that would eventually become the restaurant.”
At first, Jerry didn’t know what he wanted to build. But in talking to a golf buddy with history in the food and beverage business, he was convinced to become a restaurateur. It took Jerry three years to convert his property—originally an auto garage—into The South as it stands today.
Five years after The South opened, Jerry met Deb. “I had moved to Denver for the summer during college,” Deb remembers. “I needed a job and a friend of mine suggested I apply at The South. ‘It’s a family place, always busy, and you’ll make great money,’ she said.” Deb walked into The South, met Jerry and was hired the same day.
Fifty years later, operating the restaurant is still a labor of love. Though Jerry passed away in June, barely a month after the anniversary, his presence still looms large over The South’s community. “Jerry acknowledged everybody,” Deb says fondly. “People still come in asking for him. He loved kids, signed a lot of autographs, invited people to drink Coors Light with him. He was our best PR guy.”
Jerry worked hard to make everyone at his restaurant feel welcome. “We call ourselves The South family,” Deb says, speaking of herself and the members of her staff. “Many [employees] have been with us in the 20- to 25-year range.”
This sense of family extends to the customers, as well. “We want to be part of the neighborhood,” Deb says. “Our patrons are extremely loyal and very generational. Grandparents and great-grandparents bring their children and grandchildren. We’re watching children grow up. And they’re supporting us [all along the way].”
Deb continues, “I remember one family had a daughter who, at age two, always wanted to be a hostess with me. So we’d stand at the front together. She’s 30 now, has a highly successful career, and she still comes by.” Heartwarming stories like these prove the impact a restaurant can have on its community by treating customers with warmth and kindness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, brought many challenges for small business owners, especially those in the food and beverage industry. The South has had to adapt the way they operate to meet the new and evolving demands placed on them this last year.
“It’s been a total shift,” Deb says. “During the first shutdown, we furloughed 70 percent of our employees. We were restricted to to-go orders from March 17 to May 27, so we had to get very efficient. During normal times, we’d prepare for, say, 10 to 20 to-go orders a night. During the first shutdown, we were up to 100 to 200 orders per weekend!”
Since The South serves Mexican-American cuisine, what sticks with Deb most is the salsa they had to prepare in advance of all the orders. “We had trays and trays of hot and mild sauce ready every night,” she says. “When you prepare that much sauce, you start to have dreams about it!”
When you’ve been in the business for 50 years, you become adaptable. Thanks to Deb’s ingenuity, The South has been able to remain in operation. For example, they implemented online ordering for the first time ever, and even tricked out their patio with awnings, heat lamps and blankets to allow for moderately comfortable outdoor seating—even in a Colorado winter. At this point, Deb has been able to rehire all of her staff.
There’s a reason The South has been an Englewood, Colorado, mainstay for half a century—the food is that good. If you need proof, look no further than the house specialty: the Quesorito.
What exactly is a Quesorito, you ask? According to owner Deb Sturm, the original recipe consists of fresh ground beef, lightly seasoned and dressed with all the fixings inside a large tortilla. The tortilla is then rolled up, covered in The South’s secret red sauce, smothered with cheese and baked in the oven at 500 degrees until it’s bubbling hot.
If ground beef isn’t your thing, you can get your Quesorito made with chicken, machaca (seasoned shredded beef), steak or veggies. All are equally delicious. “I probably have a Quesorito once a week,” Deb testifies. “I eat here about three times a day, and I never get tired of our food!”
In rising to this challenge, Deb and her team showed incredible resilience and adaptability—qualities that have come to define most business owners over the course of the pandemic. Part of adapting has included trusting workers’ compensation matters to her insurance provider, EMPLOYERS®. “I’ve been extremely happy with EMPLOYERS from year one,” says Deb, having been a policyholder for over a decade. “They are more than willing to make sure we’re a satisfied customer and that our employees are being well cared for. Response and turnaround times are quick and everything is totally comprehensive. Everything is taken care of from start to finish.”
By providing its policyholders with the highest quality service, EMPLOYERS makes everything easy and efficient, so people like Deb can focus on running their business—whether that business is in its infancy or has been running for half a century.
And just like EMPLOYERS’ dedication to excellent service, Deb chalks up The South’s longevity to the restaurant’s high standard of excellence. “It’s all about high-quality ingredients and freshness of product. That maintains our success,” she says with confidence. What she doesn’t mention, though, is the high-quality atmosphere facilitated by Deb and Jerry themselves. The long tenure of their staff members, as well as a customer base that returns generation after generation, is a true testament to what a wonderful family The South has brought together. EMPLOYERS wishes them a happy 50th anniversary, and many more.
New to workers’ compensation insurance from EMPLOYERS? We have some workers’ comp explainer resources to get you started. To learn more about how EMPLOYERS could help your business, connect with a local agent today. Or if you’re part of the EMPLOYERS family, current policyholders and agents can log in to EACCESS for account details and more helpful information.