Lerua’s Fine Mexican Foods has served its signature green corn tamales for 92 years from its small adobe restaurant at Broadway and Norris Avenue.
But for the last 30 years the family-owned restaurant has been caught somewhere between limbo and lost.
That’s how long it’s been since the Tucson City Council first approved plans to widen Broadway to six lanes from four, which would entail demolishing Lerua’s and dozens of other buildings that have been fixtures on the boulevard for generations.
“A lot of my older customers had thought that they had already knocked us down and were happy to find we were still in business,” said Mike Hultquist, 58, who owns Lerua’s with his brother Brad.
“This has drawn out so far to the point that we’re not young anymore,” added Brad Hultquist, 62.
The brothers have been waiting since the late 1980s for the city to carry through with plans to widen Broadway, which would be the end to the Mexican restaurant that their mother, Carmen Maria Borgaro Hultquist, bought in 1961.
If Lerua’s goes, Brad Hultquist said they also would have to close the family’s sister restaurant El Torero, which has been in business in South Tucson since 1957.
“I can’t survive on my own without (Lerua’s),” said Brad Hultquist, who runs the restaurant at 231 E. 26th St. that his aunt, Adelina Bagaro, opened, while his brother runs Lerua’s. “I’ve been telling people we’re going to close El Torero down. There’s a 90 percent chance.”
The city first proposed widening Broadway from Euclid Avenue to Country Club Road in the late 1980s. The plans have sputtered since then — building up steam for a couple years only to be deflated by public outcry over the potential loss of at least 100 homes and businesses in the path of the alignment.
Between 1989 and 2011, the city bought 39 taxpayer parcels, said Jennifer Toothaker Burdick, the city’s Broadway expansion project manager.
In 1997, voters approved a $25 million bond issue, which put the project back on track, in theory anyway.
In 2006 voters approved a road package that called for widening Broadway to eight lanes.
In early 2012 the mayor and City Council put all property acquisitions on hold until the design plans were more clearly defined, she said.
In October, the City Council officially OK’d the six-lane plan without voting on any specific project map or alignment plan. And earlier this month, some council members and critics questioned if the $71 million budget for the project, which includes $25 million from the Regional Transportation Authority, was enough.
The city already has spent $7.3 million without any plans having been drawn up. And by some estimates, it will cost the city as much as $60 million to acquire all the affected properties — Lerua’s included — and land needed for the project.
So many unanswered questions leave the project still up for public debate, and leaves the Hultquists exactly where they have been for a big chunk of their adult lives: stuck.
“We’ve heard about this for 30 years and we’ve voted on it three, four times,” Mike Hultquist said. “Meanwhile they’ve killed my property and really damaged my business. There’s no stability.”
“I need a new roof. I need a lot of stuff … but I’m not going to do anything until I know what’s going on,” he added, ticking off a list of improvement projects including a couple ordered by the city to meet updated city codes.
Hultquist spent $800 on a new drainage system and thought he had to spend nearly $6,000 to install a new fire suppression system to meet the city’s updated 2012 fire codes. Turns out that he is in compliance with the new codes because he uses lard instead of vegetable oil in his fryers, a fire official said.
“We don’t mind meeting whatever codes they have … but meanwhile, I’m pretty much in a condemned building due to the road widening,” Hultquist said. “They will deny all your permits to expand or grow because they will tell you that you’re in this right-of-way area. They will halt your progress because they don’t want to pay you for some improvements that they can avoid doing now.”
Brad Hultquist remembers his mother worrying for years about the fate of Lerua’s.
“Up until three days before she passed away (in early 2011) she was still talking about that,” Hultquist said, recalling that his mother worried that she was leaving her sons a mess because she didn’t know what would happen to the restaurant. “For my mom it was torture. Every year she was nervous about it for all those years.”
Borgaro Hultquist bought Lerua’s at 2005 E. Broadway from founder Tony Lerua, who started the restaurant in 1922. The Hultquist brothers have worked in the family restaurants all their lives, helping out since they were young boys and working after school as teens. They both returned as adults in the late 1970s and early ’80s to take over when their aunt and mother could no longer manage the daily operations.
Lerua’s, long known for its green corn and Christmas tamales, is the backbone of the family’s operations. The restaurant has more space than El Torero, so it serves as the storage room for both restaurants. Lerua’s also supplies tamales to El Torero.
And during hard economic times, Lerua’s helps pay the bills, Mike Hultquist said.
That proved to be a lifeline for El Torero during the 26 months that the Interstate 10 freeway ramps were closed in both directions from Prince Road to 29th Street. The I-10 widening project dragged on from summer 2007 to summer 2009.
Then came the recession, from which Brad Hultquist said he has not fully recovered. He’s also had to adjust to road improvement projects in South Tucson that have disrupted his business.
The brothers worry that all of this has already taken a toll on both restaurants.
“I would hate to do another endeavor and get into debt all over again,” Brad Hultquist said. “We don’t have the energy that we used to.”