CHEYENNE — On the corner of Pershing Boulevard and Snyder Avenue in Cheyenne, where the old Burger Inn used to be, the diner’s sign shines a tiny ray of humor into a sometimes-gloomy world every now and again.
The place is called Espi’s, and its latest sign that’s been roping people in proclaims gives the brief, tragic story of what a chicken has to do to make ends meet: “Chicken gets fired … Chicken is broke … Chicken strips $7.50.”
It’s been one of his more popular signs, owner Todd Espinoza told Cowboy State Daily on a snowy Saturday morning in a restaurant full of diners taking their time, enjoying the warmth and the food. The sign has already doubled the restaurant’s chicken strip sales.
“It’s just crazy,” he said. “I was ordering, like, maybe two cases a week. Now I’m ordering four to five cases a week of the chicken strips.”
Espinoza likes to put out funny signs because doom and gloom is everywhere in the world. Inflation, war in the Ukraine, attacks on Israel, high energy prices, drugs, thugs,
“We’ve got too much seriousness in the world anymore,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “So, I just want to do something humorous, you know, make somebody’s day for the day.”
Espinoza tries to stay away from anything that’s particularly political. His goal isn’t to offend, nor necessarily to provoke any sort of deep thought.
He just wants to tickle people’s funny bones and make them feel better when they pass by, even if they don’t happen to stop in right then.
“I do have my own political views,” he said. “But I think we have a little bit better chance, here in Wyoming, of you know, (making jokes) without people getting too offended.”
All In Food Fun
Espinoza takes his inspiration from a lot of sources. Sometimes, restaurant employees help him out. Sometimes it’s customers.
A customer named Dave, for example, thought of “Cheeseburgers in Paradise, best burgers in town.”
“I had another customer of mine, a good friend, say ‘Steak Your Claim — Best chicken-fried steak in town.’”
That one went up during Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“If I like it, and it’s catchy, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that one,’” he said.
Other signs have echoed a Rock and Roll theme, which is a favorite for Espinoza. Like the AC/DC-inspired “Highway to Hell and Good Food” or the Van Halen-inspired “5150 Crazy Good Food at Espi’s.”
5150 is police code for a crazy person on the loose.
It’s Only Rock and Roll, But He Likes It
Rock and Roll is there to stay at Espi’s restaurant.
“You look around here, you can see that, you know, I’ve got all kinds of (rock and roll) memorabilia,” he said. “People like to just walk around and look at it. I like to make it a happy, friendly atmosphere. So yeah, it’s a rock and roll biker’s theme.”
He hopes that’s helped brighten up the restaurant, which was all brown inside everywhere when he bought it in February 2020, except for a ceiling yellowed by age.
The restaurant is named Espi’s because “Espy” is what his children put on the back of their sports jerseys, and Espinoza’s restaurant is, first and foremost, a family place.
“The first thing you need to do is take care of yourself,” he said. “And then you take care of your family, and then you got to take care of the community your town, and your employees. So that’s what I do, you know. I try to make sure I’m right with everything, and right with my family and then I do a lot of donations for the town, too.”
He’s donated food for PTAs, fundraisers and other events.
“I donated a couple hundred burritos to the Stride Right last year,” he said. “So, I’m always trying to take care of community and support them, too.”
He also has a soft spot in his heart for military and first responders.
“I retired from the refinery as an assistant fire chief, and I hoped out the city also,” he said. “So that’s something dear to my heart, first responders. I know what they go through.”
Don’t Stop Believing In The American Dream
Owning a restaurant is an American dream come true for Espinoza, who worked at a McDonald’s for 11 years on and off, and was at one time a general manager for the McDonald’s on Lincolnway, and then at one on Yellowstone.
“About 35 years ago I had a plan together to buy a restaurant,” he said. “But the funds weren’t there.”
The first year for the restaurant was rough, opening as it did right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was tough, it was tough,” Espinoza said. “But you know, we serve great food, we have great employees, and I think that’s what really did it.”
Customers today will find large portions of French toast for breakfast, eggs any way you want them and other classics like biscuits and gravy. There also are big burritos smothered in a choice of gravy or green chili, and a breakfast quesadilla. Lunch has a selection of American-style food — burgers, Reuben and French dip sandwiches, onion rings, fries and the like, as well as things like tacos and taco salad.
It might seem like simple food. But it’s filling, and it’s well-prepared.
Espinoza is careful with his recipes, ensuring they are made the same way every time no matter who is doing the cooking. That way there’s a consistently good experience for customers. He believes that’s what helps keep the dining room full, even on bad-weather days.
“I have some good people in the kitchen who cook for me,” he said. “I’ve had people who have been here since day one. And I’m really picky on who I hire, because I want to have that nice closeness, and this is like a family. If it weren’t for them, you know, I wouldn’t have made it through the COVID and stuff.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.