The saucy Del Campo family spices up Lawrence's bar-and-restaurant scene.


The saucy Del Campo family spices up Lawrence's bar-and-restaurant scene.

April Del Campo charms customers from behind the bar at Slow Ride Roadhouse, a North Lawrence biker bar run by her mother and her uncle. The Del Campo family is Mexican-American royalty in town, and with her dark, wavy hair and curvy figure, April is its reigning princess.

April's mother, Maggie Del Campo, is part-owner of Slow Ride. One customer begs her for a chance at April's hand whenever his Sunday ride takes him by the bar.

"Maggie, when are me and April gonna get married?" he asks time and again, sunglasses propped on his do-rag, a few Coors Lights into an afternoon.

Maggie delicately shoots him down. "I don't know if you want to marry April. She can be mean, hon! She's a very nice girl, but she can be mean."

"Come on, Maggie. Help me out."

"I can't make her do nothing, hon."

Nonfamily employees sometimes resent April, complaining that she receives preferential treatment — she gets the shifts she wants, they say, and nobody punishes her for skimping on cleaning duties. But Maggie says April is treated well simply because she is reliable.

April, meanwhile, says her mother can be harder on her than anyone.

"If I made a big amount of tips one night, I could tell her and she wouldn't say anything," April says. "If another waitress did, though, she'd say, ‘Wow, so and so made a lot of tips tonight.'"

But when April is out of earshot, Maggie often talks of her daughter's successes with amazement. April speaks three languages. She has played soccer, basketball and lacrosse and run cross-country. She teaches Latin dance classes to children. She was a homecoming-queen candidate at Free State High School, a 2005 Miss Kansas USA candidate and the Lawrence St. Patrick's Day Queen. She loves her heritage and travels regularly to Mexico, where the Del Campo family owns several properties. And even though her mother is financially comfortable, April paid her own way through school.

"She's a hard worker," Maggie says.

In addition to bartending at Slow Ride, April waits tables at her grandparents' restaurant, La Tropicana.

Owned and run by Jesse and Severina Del Campo for the past 40 years, La Tropicana occupies an ancient stucco square with red-tile awnings, next to the railroad tracks that run through North Lawrence. Its customers are as reliable as the trains that rattle windows in the historically working-class neighborhood. The original hacienda-style front door is now blocked in favor of a secure side entrance, and iron bars line the arched windows. In years past, North Lawrence has been the wrong side of the river. But folks come from all sides of town to dine with the Del Campos.

April says people appreciate the fact that La Tropicana is authentically family-run.

(Double-click the video above to see a slideshow of the Del Campo family.)

Like most of Jesse and Severina's grandchildren, she was in the back shredding lettuce by age 10, busing tables at 12, serving food at 14. Now 24 and a University of Kansas graduate, she's planning a career outside the family business. But she says she'll never break her bond with La Tropicana's faithful.

"They know your life, and you know them," April says at the start of an evening server shift. Her voice is always raspy, as though she's been chatting with someone all day. "They have come to my graduations. They'll come to my wedding. People like the feeling of togetherness."

La Tropicana thrives, Maggie says, because it belongs to townies — including, she proudly points out, "lawyers, judges, police."

April's aunts and cousins also buzz around the place. Her grandfather Jesse, who immigrated to Lawrence from Mexico City in 1961, is in the back helping prepare for the dinner rush, sharply dressed, as always, in polyester pants and a dress shirt.

On his hands, he wears enormous gold rings, sparkling proof of the American dream.

In this college town, restaurants and bars come and go, but Del Campo businesses flourish.

Jesse and Severina started the empire when they took over La Tropicana in 1965. In the early 1980s, two of their sons opened bars, both of which are now staples of their neighborhoods: Charlie's East Side Grill & Bar, a hole-in-the-wall 3.2 bar, and Los Amigos Saloon (since renamed Club 508), a controversial North Lawrence bar that Jesse Jr. launched down the road from his parents' restaurant. Jesse Jr. also invested in the Yacht Club, an established college hangout that he helped remodel as a sports bar in 2003, and co-owns Slow Ride with Maggie and two non-Del Campo partners.

At 51, Maggie is the eldest of Jesse and Severina's seven children. She and her brother Jesse Jr. spend most of their waking hours at Slow Ride, a vast one-story building with rustic-looking wood siding and a parking lot full of Harleys easily spotted by bikers approaching North Lawrence on Interstate 70.

Jesse Jr., Maggie and their partners conceived the place as a "high-end biker bar" with Harley-orange pool tables and silver ceiling fans evocative of chopper engines. On weekend nights, bands with names like Hot Load take the stage. On Sundays, much of the Del Campo family shows up to watch Chiefs games and eat tacos, the 75-cent special of the day.

They hire only female bartenders and waitstaff. Maggie is warm and maternal to the workers in her favor but sizes up new applicants with narrowed eyes and an unimpressed smile.

Maggie claims that she used to be very, very mean.

"I'd burn down my house to get to yours," she often says of her younger days, giving particular weight to offenses against her family. "If somebody attacked one of us, we'd attack them."

Now, though, her fire has mellowed, and she maintains a spiritual vibe. The family is loosely Catholic, and she makes sure that a Santeria candle always burns behind the server station at Slow Ride, near the coffeepot and the emptied bottles of expensive Cazadores, Don Julio and Patron tequilas.

Maggie has a rapport with Slow Ride regulars, but Jesse Jr. is their favorite, with his Sturgis T-shirts and wide, easy smile. A few of his biker friends make racist jokes but don't seem to notice or care that Jesse Jr. is Mexican. Not so long ago, he was known to party with strippers and wake up on houseboats on Lake Perry. His shoulders are immense, and the most unlikely women — say, pretty, college-age waitresses — adore him, despite his large beer belly.

Besides his grown son, Angelo, Jesse Jr. has two small daughters by different mothers, both in their 20s. He gives much in the way of financial support — he recently bought a mobile home for daughter Eliana's mom. But when she calls, his cell phone blares the Guess Who: American woman! Stay away from me-hee. "Jesse is a pimp daddy," Maggie often jokes.

Jesse Jr. gutted and remodeled the Slow Ride building mostly by himself. He and Maggie maintain the place ferociously — rigorous morning cleanings, cameras behind the bar, strict enforcement of the city's smoking ban. Customers revere the place — a biker bar that's not a dive — and often serve as its unofficial bouncers.

The bar also earns good marks from the North Lawrence community for drawing patrons up U.S. Highway 24 and away from residential neighborhoods.

Disappointment was palpable, however, when Jesse Jr. abandoned his original plan for the building: to relocate his Club 508, an infamous bar nestled within a family neighborhood near La Tropicana.

Opening his father's Club 508 on a Thursday night, Angelo Del Campo is dressed in a tan South Pole shirt, baggy jeans and two gold Catholic medals. He wears spiked black hair and a gold bracelet with several diamonds that appear to be real. Angelo is all business tonight, so he's not wearing a gold grill in his mouth. Jesse Jr. calls his son "25 Cent" and trusts him at the helm of his original nightclub venture.

"It'd be fun to take it over, passing from family member to family member. I like the nightlife," Angelo says, leaning against 508's chipping formica bar, an obvious contrast to the glossy black granite at Slow Ride. "If I didn't do this, I'd still probably be working for one of the family businesses."

Like La Tropicana, Club 508 faces the railroad tracks. Its sign reads "Club 508, Premiere Dance Club," though all but the neon "8" are burned out.

Jesse Jr., now 46, started the place with his mother's help in 1982. He named it Los Amigos Saloon, after his old softball team. He says he quickly began catering to students at Haskell Indian Nations University. The bar so relies on Haskell students that it shuts down over the summer.

Angelo sees a smattering of white and black customers now.

"But my dad says that, back in the day, this was like the reservation. It was the only place they felt welcome," says Angelo, whose mother is half Haida, Indian from Alaska.

Harmonica player Brody Buster is performing at 508 tonight, and his band is setting up. Buster walks over and asks whether to expect a crowd.

"Thursdays, you never know," Angelo tells him. "But Haskell kids just got their Pell Grants. Last week, we opened up on Tuesday just because they got their Pell money. They drank that up real fast."

With American Indian clientele, Mexican-American owners and a mostly white neighborhood, 508 has been a racial lightning rod throughout its contentious relationship with the community.

In 1991, responding to theft, vandalism, beatings and stabbings in and around Los Amigos, Lawrence officials asked the Alcoholic Beverage Control director not to renew the bar's liquor license. North Lawrence Neighborhood Improvement Association President Ted Boyle recalls the situation as dire.

"Nearby schoolkids were picking up pop cans with needles in them," he says.

The ABC renewed the bar's license anyway, agreeing with Jesse Jr.'s argument that he could not be held responsible for crimes in the vicinity of his business. Over the next decade, violence near 508 continued: three men wounded by bullets, one Haskell student disappearance and a drive-by shooting.

The neighborhood association continued to lobby the city commission to crack down on the bar, whose commercial zoning within a residential area is protected by a grandfather clause. In the late '90s, the city passed an ordinance singling out Los Amigos for an earlier closing time and stricter regulations on lights, parking and security. But neighborhood relations remained strained.

In 2001, Boyle told The Lawrence Journal-World that the bar attracted a "different kind of people." He was quoted as saying that Indians were the source of the problem.

Jesse Jr. accused him of racism, but Boyle told the paper that he was just stating facts: "It's not a racist deal. If they were red, white, black or yellow, it doesn't matter. If they were making these kind of problems, we'd still be mad."

Boyle now blames part of the problem on Topeka and Kansas City gang members. He also points to the Del Campos and their employees, claiming that the bar's own bouncers would "tell residents to shut up and go in their house."

"Del Campos weren't taking care of business. They were just going after the money, packing as many as they could in there and not getting them out of the neighborhood," Boyle says, recalling lingering packs of thugs and music that boomed from the bar until 4 a.m. (Lawrence bars must close by 2.) "It was kind of a letdown because the Del Campos are a North Lawrence family, and for them to be so disrespectful of the neighborhood was disappointing."

When city commission debates over the bar came to a head in 2001, Jesse Jr. changed its name from Los Amigos Saloon to Club 508 and painted the building purple.

"They were pretty mad about it," he says with a grin.

Today, Boyle says, the bar is much more tame.

Angelo says he tries to keep 508 in line — double-checking that trash is picked up, watching for underage drinkers.

"Nobody likes to live by a bar," Angelo says, looking out over three pool tables, two red-glass light fixtures and a wall of exposed limestone. "But it's definitely not as bad as it was. I used to know a lot of people who wouldn't even come in here. Like, white people."

Angelo plans to start taking business classes at Haskell this spring.

"My mom's always been pushing me to go to school," Angelo says. He plans to study business, in case he ends up taking the reins of his father's establishments.

A surly Slow Ride customer once mocked his plans, telling him, "Working in a bar is not a career, sweetheart."

This prompted Angelo to make an emotional speech about her mistake in disrespecting his father's lifetime of hard work.

"In high school, people would talk about how we were rich," he tells the Pitch. "My family works hard. That's why they have what they have. My grandma and grandpa had to work their ass off when they came here. My grandma — she's old, she still works her ass off. My grandpa is older and probably shouldn't be working. But he works."

People talked when he was in high school, and people talk now, about the root of the Del Campos' success. They whisper that Jesse Sr. runs a drug-and-weapons cartel from Mexico, that the family was under surveillance 20 years ago, that Severina's family made dirty money, that Jesse Sr. spent three years in a Mexican prison until the family paid a million-dollar bribe.

This, the Del Campos say, is the real family history.

Before it was a restaurant, La Tropicana was a bar by the same name, owned by Tomas Garcia, a North Lawrence farmer.

In the 1940s, Garcia's son-in-law, Manuel Gauna, a railroad worker, took his wife and Kansas-born children — the ones not yet grown, including Severina — to be with other family members in Mexico City.

Back in her native land, a teenage Severina met Jesus Del Campo — Jesse — at a dance. They married and had four children between 1955 and 1960: Maggie, Laura, Alma and Jesus Jr.

The next year, 1961, Severina and Jesse left Mexico to be with her siblings who had stayed in Kansas. The couple and their young children moved into the second-story apartment above La Tropicana.

"My dad had $11 in his pocket and spoke no English when they came here," says Laura, 49.

Severina and Jesse Sr. both took jobs on the other side of the Kansas River — Severina as a cook at Casa del Tacos on Massachusetts Street and Jesse Sr. down the road as a bellhop at the Eldridge Hotel.

He is pictured in a black-and-white photograph that hangs in the Eldridge lobby. The 35 staff members stand in line on the sidewalk beneath a striped awning; eight are black and a few are Latino-looking. Jesse wears a suit and tie, but most striking are his fierce eyebrows, black hair and widow's peak.

Severina's mother was a housekeeper at the hotel and had put in a good word for Jesse. But it was up to the hotel manager, Mike Getto, to decide whether to hire the young Mexican who spoke no English.

Jesse, now 76, says that without Getto, he might not have obtained his green card. "I could never forget him. He was so good to me," Jesse says.

Getto tells the Pitch that Jesse was a model employee, that he delivered room service to Getto's mother, who lay bedridden with multiple sclerosis. Getto went on to hold top positions with Ramada and other hotel chains, and he contributed a story about Jesse to an industry publication called Oops! I Thought This Room Was Vacant. The story involves Getto's one salacious memory of Jesse.

"He didn't get along with Mohammed, who was a gay, black staff member. Jesus [Jesse] said something in Spanish — however you say queer nigger." But Mohammed had studied Spanish at KU, and he poured coffee onto Jesse's head. The story goes that Jesse then ran into the Crystal Room, unscrewed a leg from a fine dining table and went after the man.

Getto, 72, still works in the hotel industry and now lives in Santa Barbara, California. He tells the Pitch that during last spring's immigration rallies, he marched there with 30,000 others, holding a sign that read "We're all immigrants."

Jesse says that, in those days when Getto befriended him, Lawrence had few new immigrants. He found immediate friends among Americans, he says, because he worked hard, putting in 16- to 18-hour days at the Eldridge for 85 cents an hour.

Jesse stayed with the Eldridge for more than three years, finally leaving for a construction job with much better pay: $2.85 an hour.

Severina's grandfather Tomas Garcia sold La Tropicana to her and Jesse in 1965. By then, she and Jesse had three more children: Charlie, Kathy and Victor.

After four years running the bar, Severina thought business might pick up if she turned the place into a restaurant. Drunk patrons needed to eat, and she missed cooking at Casa del Tacos.

"She loved the kitchen," Maggie says of her mother.

Laura now does most of the cooking at the restaurant with Kathy, 42, and Severina. (Only two of the seven children left Lawrence and the family business: Alma, who married a Fort Riley soldier and raised her children in California, and Victor, who works at a casino in Wisconsin.)

"We would've had a good business if all us girls were dancers and the boys were pimp daddies," Maggie jokes of the family work ethic.

She has heard the drug rumors but shrugs them off.

"It's mostly people talking shit," she says. "People are jealous. Everything we have worked for has been hard. Why can't our friend have what we have? Because they don't work like we work. They have eight-hour jobs, and that's it. If we were drug lords, we wouldn't be working like we do. I wish we were — then I wouldn't have to do anything."

Criminal records support the family's version of the Del Campo history. Its members have racked up a few drunken-driving arrests but no drug-related convictions.

Jesse Jr. does have four battery convictions, including a felony that briefly landed him in prison, and a Club 508 scuffle in which he aimed a gun, he says, to protect himself and others from an armed patron.

Now that he's in his mid-40s, Jesse Jr. says he doesn't "get so worked up" over life anymore and has outgrown the quick temper and tumultuous relationships that landed him in jail.

The longest criminal record in the family, it turns out, belongs to grandma Severina. As legal owner of Club 508, she has pleaded guilty or no contest to 24 minor-in-possession charges in the past 10 years. The family recently paid a settlement of $12,000 in fines and, at the end of 2005, was among the five Kansas bar owners with the most violations. (That's not unusual for Lawrence, where two other bars also made last year's top five: The Hawk and Quinton's Bar and Deli, both favorites among white fraternity members.)

Criminal records reveal convictions, not investigations. Regarding would-be surveillance of Del Campo businesses in the 1970s and '80s — when cops supposedly watched cartel mules come and go with drugs and weapons under floorboards — Chris Mulvenon, assistant to the chief of police in Lawrence, says he's unaware of any such files. (Criminal investigations conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation are not covered by the state's Open Records Act, and applicable Federal Bureau of Investigation files are protected by the Privacy Act.)

Yet another rumor — that, as a public-works employee, Jesse Sr. used high-dollar city equipment for personal construction work — also appears to be bogus: Neither Lawrence nor Douglas County personnel records show that he was ever an employee in the first place.

It's Severina's 70th birthday party, and all but a handful of her seven children, 20 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren are present on this October evening. A white married couple is there, too — they're among La Tropicana's oldest customers.

As with Christmas, Mother's Day and Quinceañera celebrations in the family, the affair is elaborate. Kathy, Laura and Severina have prepared heaps of chicken mole, chicharrón in chile verde, pork with chile rojo, fideos, beans, rice, tortilla chips and salsa, flour tortillas, a display of fruit and dipping sauce. The spread spans an entire garage wall at Kathy's cozy, well-decorated home in a modest Lawrence neighborhood.

Kathy, Severina's pretty youngest daughter, does the baking for events catered by La Tropicana, and she has lined another wall with intricately frosted cakes — dulce de leche, strawberry cream and dark chocolate — as well as candies and a traditional Mexican flan.

Women are lighting burners beneath the catering pans. People begin digging into the feast, while Jesse Sr. and children Maggie, Jesse Jr. and Charlie celebrate with shots of Chinaco Anejo tequila and Remy cognac. The mood is jovial and reverent, not raucous — that's for tomorrow night at Slow Ride, when Jesse Jr. will celebrate his own birthday.

The younger grandchildren weave around tables and chairs. They understand Spanish but don't speak it, Maggie says. She can't predict whether the youngest generation will continue the family legacy at La Tropicana or other businesses.

"Restaurant labor is hard. It's hard to drop the business and take off to see your kids' school projects or soccer games," she says. "We're hoping our kids get an education so they can do whatever they want to."

Ashley Keith, the remaining original Slow Ride employee, recalls April's lavish graduation party last May.

"When the Del Campos throw parties, they go all out. April's graduation party was huge," says Keith, 20, who once dated Angelo and now is close to April and Maggie. "She's accomplished quite a bit, so she's set on a pedestal. But she lives up to it."

April, who throughout college lived with her mother in a house they bought together, is preparing to leave Lawrence and her family. She doesn't know where her career will take her — maybe to Brazil, whose growing economy inspired her to emphasize Portuguese in her studies. She isn't concerned about leaving Lawrence, her family and her mother for the first time.

"That's why I went to college — to learn and grow and gain," she says. "Of course, I'll always come back to Lawrence and to the restaurant, and if they need me while I'm back, I'll help," she says.

But she admits that she has stepped into a world most members of her family have not seen.

"They didn't know what to expect. With us, it's family first, and then work before education. You have to be able to do it all," she says.

April stands at a display that her aunt Kathy created with photos of Severina and her family. Snapshots reveal the matriarch holding daughters in black-and-white Mexico, holding grandchildren in colorful Kansas. April points and explains the pictures to a young white guy who has worked for the family at La Tropicana for six years, longer than any other non-Del Campo employee. He's just a friend, but she'll likely show these same photos to any man who wants to be more than that.

"She told me the only way she could marry someone is if he loved her family and loved her culture," Maggie says of her daughter. "I said, 'And if he loved you, too?' She said, 'That's beside the point.'"

"My mom and I both have traditional Latino ways," April says, explaining why Maggie is impressed by admirers who lavish her daughter with gifts. The man who wins April's heart will be old-fashioned — he'll open doors and offer financial stability.

"You know," April says. "The fairy tale."


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