LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - You can pass by Casa Manana on any given day and the parking lot will be packed.
"I have such a soft spot for the people of Lake Charles for accepting us like they did," said Dody Martel, Casa Manana owner.
But long before the Lake Area fell in love with "Casa," owner Dody Martel and her family opened a pizza business in Lake Charles.
"We actually started out with a Pizza Inn restaurant. Being from Texas, we had never seen a place this big without a Mexican restaurant. So we started thinking about that," said Dody.
Casa Manana opened back in 1976, but during construction Dody recalls having serious doubts.
"And we got to thinking maybe the Cajun cuisine is spicy enough that the Louisiana people won't like Mexican and we had everything we could save and borrow in this," said Dody.
Those doubts are long gone. Originally known for the queso puff, their menu now includes favorites like quesadillas and fajitas. But Dody admits it wasn't always so good.
"It was kind of embarrassing. We took the recipes and invited our neighborhood and it was terrible," laughed Dody.
Collaborating with a Mexican chef they eventually worked it all out, but Dody will tell beyond the food the real secret to their success was her father - Ted Smith - the first general manager, he was known around the restaurant as "Grand Daddy."
"He touched every table, he gave every child a bubble gum as they left," said Dody.
"He stood up front and he took care of the staff and he was the leader," said Darren Martel, Dody's son.
With Grand Daddy setting the example, Darren is now helping manage the family business.
"Right then and there I got the bug to be in the industry whether I knew it or not," said Darren. "The wild thing is I still never get tired of the food here. After all this time - I'm now 40."
The Lake Area can't get enough either. During Casa Manana's expansion in 1995, construction crews couldn't even keep the patrons away.
"We were so amazed by the Lake Charles people. We thought we were going to lose a lot of business because of all the work. They would come in and there would be a plastic sheet hanging up and they'd be eating on one side and the workers would be spray painting on the other side. I mean they really got into it," said Dody.
While the food and the business have changed over the years the salsa has remained the same. So popular among Casa faithful they even put it on store shelves. The unique blend of tomato and spices and those crunchy chips all made fresh on site, while the store products are made in Houston and shipped all over the world.
"We decided to do that about 10 or 12 years ago. We ship to several states and out of the country. At one time we were shipping some to Saudi Arabia," said Dody.
Whether it's the taste they crave or just a place to be seen, Casa Manana has a loyal customer base.
"I like to mix the cheese in with the dip, it just gives it a tangy taste," said Joshua Rogers, customer.
"I've been coming here forever - since my McNeese days. I just like the atmosphere, it's loud and noisy, the atmosphere is just easy to relax in," said Debra Pruitt.
Casa employs more than 150 people. "Everybody has the same goal and the goal is to get the guests happy to get the food out and not injure yourself during the process," said Darren.
Several staff members have been with the business for more than 20 years. Frank Levine started out as a bus boy and was quickly moved to management. He's enjoyed his career with Casa and says there's never a dull moment, especially during the rush hours.
"There's a lot we do behind the scenes that a lot of people don't realize, but it's wonderful trying to get this place going," said Levine.
Nearly 35 years later, you can say Casa Manana was in the right place at the right time with right idea.
"It's been amazing! And we owe everything to our guests - I can tell you that right now," said Darren.
In case you are wondering: The name Casa Manana means "House of Tomorrow." It doesn't make a lot of sense, but Dody said she liked the way it sounded.