After languishing empty for more than two years, the building that housed the original Bobcat Bite Café and its iconic green chile cheeseburgers is on the market, along with the nearly 100 acres behind it on Old Las Vegas Highway.
A big white "For Sale" sign was nailed to the roof of the shuttered roadside diner about two weeks ago, looking down on the sloping gravel parking lot that has most recently served as a storage site for state contractors as they work to reinforce a few of the nearby bridges that span Interstate 25.
The asking price is $945,000, including two wells, a pair of pens and stables, an adobe guesthouse, a main house and another dwelling, all totaling 6,400 square feet of living space.
But it's the Bobcat Bite, the tiniest building of the bunch, that is the most known to the public. Barely measuring 800 square feet, the café more than made up for its size, feeding millions of square feet in bellies inside cramped quarters.
The diner gained national attention under the stewardship of John and Bonnie Eckre, who benefitted from the age of cable television and viewer obsession with food documentaries.
Over time, the place became a magnet for burger connoisseurs who were particular about their beef and loved the fact that it came from grass-fed cattle that grazed in New Mexico. And they were willing to wait in long lines for a taste.
But the Eckres were merely the last behind the fryer in a long line of operators. In the 1940s, Midwestern journalist Rene Clayton bought the 98-acre property. Divorced by that time, Clayton was a woman who bordered on feminist "but not quite," in the words of her grandson, Mark Panzer, 57, the middle of three children.
"She always believed that if you had the will and if you worked hard, then you could achieve your dream," Panzer tells SFR in a telephone interview from his Phoenix home.
A reporter for the Des Moines Register and the Chicago Tribune, Clayton would eventually give up her full-time gig to write part-time and raise quarter horses on the property, recruiting her grandchildren for the dirty work.
She decided to turn it into a family retreat, a cross between a summer getaway and a grueling work detail for the Panzers, who were raised in the inner city of Chicago and were more accustomed to subway tokens than juniper, piñón and bobcats.
"It was no summer camp, that's for sure. I was shoveling horse shit at six in the morning, mending fences, looking after the stables—doing whatever Ma and Grandma told me to do," says Panzer, who notes the only payback was getting to saddle up the quarter horses and ride them through the arroyos.
And, of course, there was that well-deserved lunch break after having risen at dawn and working for six straight hours, which meant heading down to the café.
It was Mark's mother, Mitzi, who opened the restaurant in 1953 and who named it after the multitude of bobcats who'd come down from the foothills for the scraps of meat left for them at the kitchen. She moved back to Chicago a couple years later, with Mark and older brother Carver in tow, and eventually remaried, but not before leaving the diner in the reliable hands of Don and Millie Cowell, her aunt and uncle.
Other operators over the years would follow, abiding by the strict family rule that the menu always stay the same, and the Eckres were the last, in 2001.
John Eckre was a pioneer in his own right, a Southern California boy who once taught hang gliding before moving out to Santa Fe in 1982, following a group of friends who were big into yoga.
Born in the hippie town of Ojai, he'd held a multitude of jobs, from grocery clerk to dishwasher to construction worker, eventually building houses in the City Different before taking over the grill at the Bite.
The story wouldn't end there. The Eckres now operate a new restaurant, Santa Fe Bite, inside Garrett's Desert Inn Hotel, having landed on their feet at a prime downtown spot within two months of leaving the Bobcat Bite in what can only be described as a cloud of discontent.
The couple says they were forced out of the Old Las Vegas location after the Panzers' price to lease the place soared too high for their pocketbooks and there was a dispute over who was the rightful owner of the restaurant's trademark name.
The departure led to a mutiny among a few of the locals who had grown accustomed to the Eckres, and they turned out in great numbers on their last day to bid them goodbye on June 9, 2013.
Yet with that exodus came a void, leaving an empty shell along the highway. The only consolation, according to Panzer, is that his mother, as she lay dying of cancer the same month the restaurant closed, told him that "maybe this is the way it's meant to be," that the Bobcat Bite, along with the rest of the land, "was supposed to begin with Grandma and end with me."
Whoever buys the land also gets a restaurant site with a good track record, notes Tommy Gardner, the listing Realtor for Santa Fe Commercial Real Estate.
John Eckre says he's happy at Santa Fe Bite and would never consider returning to the days of yore, which didn't exactly end amicably. "That'd be like traveling back in time," he explains. Plus, it's not his style.
Mark Panzer says his brother Carver and sister Lori will definitely miss the place if it's snapped up right away. But then he points out, "We're not in any rush."
As for the very bobcats that have become synonymous with the property, their numbers have steadily diminished, a sign that the land isn't as open as it used to be, and history will only tell whether the parcels for sale along Old Las Vegas Highway, including Panzers', become subdivisions on the outskirts of Santa Fe.