There may be younger entrepreneurs in town. But none are likely to be as familiar as 26-year-old John Kirschbaum, the new co-owner of El Rancho Mexican restaurant with his wife, Brenda.
The Kirschbaums bought the business from Bob and Jeannie Garduno last month.
Kirschbaum got his start in the Payson food business by working for the local McDonald's at the age of 12. In 1990, he went to work for Rim country restaurateur Jeff Seivert, first at Country Kitchen, and then at the Ponderosa Steak House, where he toiled for a combined 12 years.
"It's always been my goal to own my own restaurant," Kirschbaum said. "I'd made several attempts to buy three other restaurants in town, but those deals just didn't work out."
Kirschbaum is a restaurateur of few words, as evidenced by this near-25-words-or-less description of his life story:
"When I was in high school, I graduated third in my class with a scholarship, and attended the University of Arizona, majoring in chemical engineering, for about a year," he said. "And then Jeff offered me a job to run the Country Kitchen."
Six years later, after helping Seivert build Ponderosa, he took over that restaurant's management and stayed until last month, when the chance arose to pony up the pesos to buy El Rancho.
"It's always been our favorite place to eat," he said. "Brenda and her dad have been eating here for years. That's what we were doing one night when we heard the rumor you know how Payson is that the place was on the market. I just called around, one thing led to another, and now it's ours."
Neither of the Kirschbaums have any desire to change a single thing about El Rancho, from the menu to the staff to the gift shop.
"We're going to keep everything exactly the same, at least for a little while," he said. "We have all the same people; not a single person out of out 25 or 30 employees has left since we took over. We might do some remodeling and redecorating down the road, but that's about it. Eventually, we may add a few things to the menu, but we don't want to rock the boat too soon."
Despite his lack of experience in the Mexican-food arena, Kirschbaum is confident that he'll quickly learn the necessary ropes.
"I've been cooking a lot over the past month, and nobody's said anything, nobody's noticed," he said. "Of course, off and on at the other restaurants, I've cooked for many years. So over here, it's a slightly different method, but everything is about the same."
Including the hours he racks up on the time clock, Kirschbaum said.
"This is a lot of work," he said. "I work six days a week, from six in the morning to 11 at night, if not longer, and eventually probably by August we're going to start opening on Sundays."
That's good news for weekend diners who can't get enough of the restaurant's most popular offering, the Queso Loco Burro, or its many items made from scratch right on the premises.
"It's all fresh and handmade, every day," Kirschbaum said. "OK, not the tortillas; they're fresh, but we don't make them. We do make just about everything else, though."