Reviews

"Mike Frasca Carries On Family Tradition With The Help Of Five Siblings, Keeps The Panino Alive" The Colorado College Catalyst - Student Newspaper

Article by: Chrissie Long, News Editor

It’s easy to miss Panino’s as you drive down Tejon Street. It blends in with the stores on
either side of it, and the maroon signs and tinted windows do little to beckon the attention of customers. If you happen to glance in its direction, it’s not difficult to pass it off as another Italian restaurant.

But walk in there at any lunch hour, and every table will be full. The only seats available will be in the smoking section. The restaurant will be alive with waiters and waitresses hustling from one table to the next. Customers will be engrossed in animated conversations or occupied with the food in front of them.

The restaurant’s claim to fame is its panino sandwich. The panino is the Italian form of
the Mexican burrito--coming in nearly 35 different combinations. The dough is thicker
than a tortilla, but not thick enough to be compared to bread. Once you have a bite of it, it is hard to put down--it can be as addictive as a bag of chips. Cheers to any diner who can eat all that he is given because the panino is nothing less than a full meal.
No where else will you find anything like it. The panino originated as two types of
sandwiches: steak and onion and sausage and green pepper. Since then it has grown to
encompass a number of fillings, as customers have designed their own panino to fit with their individual tastes.

Mike Frasca has grown up around Paninos. His parents Tony and Everetta Frasca bought
the original restaurant, Pizza After Five, in 1974 and named it Pizza Plus. With the help
of their seven children, they developed a successful business that has spread to five
locations today. Mike, the middle child of his six siblings, owns the restaurant his parents
first bought on Tejon Street and has developed it to be one of the most popular
restaurants in Colorado Springs.

“It was my mother that was basically behind the whole thing,” said Mike. “She always
wanted to have her own restaurant.”

The Frasca family did not have a lot of money when Mike was growing up. Mike recalls
that his father “worked his heart out and had several jobs.” His mother learned to use her
resources wisely. “Mom was always good at pinching pennies. We always joked with her
that she used to tear our napkins in half at dinner. We only got half a napkin.”

Mike’s father, Tony, graduated from Colorado College in 1952 and later worked as a
hockey coach there. “My dad loved CC,” said Mike. “He was the oldest kid there when
he left.”

Mike remembers that when he visited his father in his office on campus, he would always be surrounded by students. At times, Mike felt that some of his friends were closer to his father than he was. “People loved him,” said Trip, Mike’s older brother.

Mike’s father worked three jobs when the Frasca children were growing up. The coaches at CC did not make much money back then. Many of them worked nights at the dog track. Tony also had a summer job as the baseball director for the Park and Recreation Department. When they bought the restaurant, Mike’s father would go work at Pizza Plus before he went to CC. When he finished at CC he would go back to work nights with Everetta. “He worked hard his whole life,” said Trip.

But it was Everetta who was the real driving force behind the restaurant. She was there from four in the morning until ten or eleven at night. “She is very intelligent, a strong-
minded business person—really tough,” said Mike. “She ran it really, pretty much until I took over.”

Mike was born in 1956 and, as the middle child of six siblings, he considered himself one of the older kids in the family. He hung out with his three older siblings for most of his
childhood.

He grew up on Winston Road, which was the furthest road east in Colorado Springs at
the time. “[Colorado Springs] has probably grown ten times since I was a kid.” He
enjoyed the “small-town atmosphere” of the Springs when everybody knew everybody
else.

“Partly because having seven kids, we knew everybody in town,” said Mike. “My dad was probably more well-known when he was at CC than the mayor. The hockey team was huge, and he was such a big part of that everybody knew my dad.” Even just twenty
years ago, when Mike and his wife got married, she was amazed that everywhere she went to write a check, they knew her: “Oh, you’re a Frasca?”

Growing up, Mike played hockey and baseball. He wanted to be a professional hockey player when he was older. Trip describes his younger brother as “a happy-go-lucky little kid that loved to play sports, did well in school, and had a lot of friends. He always had a lot of friends and he still has a lot of friends.”

Mike believes he is more like his mother than any of his siblings. “I always felt that we had a little bit more of a connection between the two of us. We always seemed to be on the same page, even now.”

“He is identical to my mom,” his brother Trip agreed. “They have a lot of the same personality. They almost look like twins, especially when they laugh. He’s definitely got a lot of her in him.”

Mike began his freshman year at CC in 1974--the same year his parents bought the restaurant. Upon moving into Slocum, he quickly became friends with his wing mates. The group remained close throughout college and they still keep in contact today. “That was probably my favorite thing about CC—the way our group grew together,” said Mike. “We became like a family. We had good times.”

CC was a lot different back then. The school was more lenient about student drinking. People over the age of 18 were allowed to drink 3.2 beer. There was a bar in downstairs Worner that served alcohol. In some cases the school actually paid for beer at the parties. Mike remembers taking a keg of beer into a CC hockey game with a group of his friends. They took it in on a stretcher and sat up in the student section, just drinking beer. During his first block, Mike had second thoughts about coming to CC. He took Intro to Psych and for ten days he did nothing, but eat, sleep, and study. “I was working so hard to stay up in that class,” he said. “I was thinking I am going to flunk out. I am not going to make it.” He would stare out his dorm window and watch everyone else playing Frisbee and hanging out on the quad.

Mike soon realized that his class took a lot more time than other classes. Eventually academics got better as he took different classes and became accustomed to the block plan. Mike graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Arts in business administration.

Mike worked at the restaurant throughout his time at CC. He worked the lunch hour every day from 11-2p.m. and some evenings. “All my friends worked here, too, at one time or another,” said Mike. “It was really fun. This was a huge CC hangout back then.” He took a year off after college, going to California to work for the US Olympic Committee at an ice rink. He returned to Colorado Springs and, upon his parent’s recommendation, started a liquor store next to the restaurant. It was called Uptown Spirits. Mike said, “I sold a lot of kegs to CC.”

Mike and his sister Gail bought the restaurant from their parents in 1984. At that time there were nearly six Pizza Plus locations in Colorado Springs. Trip opened one on 8th Street. Patty and her husband Steve Sertich, CC hockey legend, had one on the north side
of town. Mike’s mother, Everetta, owned one in the east. There were also two delivery-only stores.

When Mike first bought the restaurant, he worked nearly fourteen-hour days. He managed the kitchen while his sister, Gail, ran the front. Gail was very friendly with the customers. “She would almost sit in their laps,” Mike says.

In 1991, they renovated the pizza joint, turning it into an Italian restaurant. “The Panino just took over as far as sales went. After a year or two of customers asking, ‘Can we have this on there? Can we have that on there?’ it just grew and grew and grew,” said Mike. They changed their name because, “Everybody started calling us Panino’s.”

Mike bought his sister out in 1996. She moved up to Fort Collins to start a Panino’s there. In addition, three Panino’s were opened in Minnesota, which are currently owned by Mike’s sister Joann and her husband. Trip continues to run his restaurant on 8th Street.

Panino’s has developed into a family-oriented restaurant. Although the lunch hour is crowded with middle-age, working people, families find it an ideal restaurant to take their children for weekend meals. Panino’s would no longer be considered a CC hang-out in the same sense as it was when Mike was a student, but it is common to find several students or professors catching a meal there after class.

Mike has always wanted to develop the restaurant further. He has tried to open other locations but hasn’t yet been successful. “I’ve learned some pretty expensive lessons,” he said. He hopes that one day, when his kids are grown up, he will have time to expand it. Mike has maintained a competitive restaurant that has outlasted the influx of chains.

His competitive spirit has led him to be an active participant in a wide range of sports as an adult. Not only does he continue to play hockey, but he is also an avid skier on and off snow. He competes in slalom water-skiing in Pueblo. Slalom water skiing is an intense, high-speed sport in which a boat pulls you through the competitor series of buoys. Depending on how the competitor does, he or she advances to the next round. Trip says that Mike’s “greatest weakness is his water-skiing. It has a noose around his neck.”

Another passion of Mike’s is spending time with his kids. “I really enjoy watching my kids participate in sports,” said Mike. “I kind of go from sporting event to sporting event. One finishes, and then I am off to the next one. I look forward to that all the time.”

Looking back, there is little that Mike regrets. He says his greatest accomplishment is “providing jobs for forty different people. I take that pride more seriously than anything else when I make decisions about the restaurant. I feel responsible for all the people that work here.”

There are nearly forty-five employees at Mike’s Panino’s. At times, the restaurant has supported entire families. There are a handful of people who have been there since the early nineties, including Mike’s three managers. Other employees stay on average a couple of years. “I think we have less turnover than most restaurants,” said Mike.

Mike’s customers are just as dedicated. Nearly 250 people are served on an average weekday. On the weekend that number jumps to nearly 400. There are people that come in two to three times a week and order the same thing every time.

Mike recalled this one man who ordered the hot-dog combo three times a week for a number of years. He would come in, find an empty booth, and sit down by himself. The staff had stopped giving him a menu because they knew what he was going to have. One
day, Mike went up to him and asked him if he wanted to try something new. He took Mike’s suggestion and ordered another panino. From that day forth, he always ordered
that second panino.

Trip has had similar experiences: “We have some customers that when you see them you know what they are going to have because they have been having the same thing for twenty years,” he said. “It just amazes me how you can come in here and eat the same
panino for twenty years when there are nineteen or twenty other ones that are just as good.”

So next time you are driving down Tejon Street, and you pass Panino’s with their tinted windows and maroon signs, don’t dismiss it as your average Italian restaurant. There just might be a panino that will keep you coming back for twenty years.