AUBURN — Dave and Shelaina Pflug spent almost nine months renovating their new restaurant, making it their own. But at the same time, it's still Connie's.
Reopening Monday, Connie's Tex-Mex on State Street was purchased by the Pflugs, of Cato, in late 2015. The restaurant's namesake, Connie Buschman, opened it in August 1994 and ran it with her husband, Doug Buschman, until one afternoon in 2015, when Dave, his and Shelaina's daughter and his brother, Joe, walked in for lunch.
Dave and his brother had been looking at buying a pizza shop in Union Springs, he said. Fresh off co-owning a bar in DeWitt, Three Fat Guys, Dave was a stay-at-home dad looking to make money, but also remain his own boss. He'd cooked and delivered for Connie's in the mid-'90s and the early 2000s, serving four years in the Army between stints at the restaurant.
That day he returned for lunch, Connie offered Dave a chance to work there again — as its owner. Shelaina, a San Antonio native, thinks her Mexican-American heritage and Dave's familiarity with the restaurant made them qualified successors to Connie: A native of Potosí, Mexico, she and Doug operated a restaurant in Austin, Texas, before relocating to his native Auburn.
Though it'd be more work than the pizza shop, Dave's fondness for the place led him to accept Connie's offer.
"If we didn't take it over, Connie was just going to let it go," he said. "We didn't want to see it go to waste."
The Pflugs began running Connie's on Sept. 1, 2015, though Connie and Doug stayed a few months to ease the transition, Dave said.
He and Shelaina continued using all of Connie's recipes except for soup, which Dave makes with his own stock, he said. Otherwise, they still soak their own beans, marinate their own meat and prepare their own pico de gallo, guacamole and salsa. The only foods they don't make in Connie's kitchen are french fries, onion rings and jalapeño poppers, Dave continued.
As they dug in at the restaurant, however, the Pflugs began planning to renovate it. They got the chance in February, when a family illness forced them to close Connie's temporarily, Shelaina said. She and Dave extended the hiatus so they could complete the renovations in what they thought would be a couple months, reopening for Cinco de Mayo.
But when a partner in the renovation backed out, and Dave was left to complete the work by himself, that hiatus of a couple months became nine.
He took his time for a reason: In addition to addressing kitchen conditions that led to a few unsatisfactory health department inspections in 2016 and 2017, Dave built a new wooden counter and new tables, refinished the wooden booths, patched spots in the brick dining room wall, and more.
Meanwhile, a family friend provided several pieces of new decor reflecting the restaurant's Mexican, Texan and Auburnian roots, including photos and a guitar hand-painted with sun patterns.
"Every single piece in here took a lot of heart and time," Shelaina said. "Very long nights and no days off."
The Pflugs said the Connie's Facebook page has been receiving several posts asking about the restaurant's reopening. They described its daytime crowd as a mix of businesspeople, construction workers and officers from neighboring Auburn Correctional Facility; at night, they said, families and couples are more common. Many are regulars, they said.
Though Connie's may look like a new restaurant to those longtime patrons when it reopens Monday, the Pflugs said the menu will stay mostly the same. In addition to its founder's recipes for Tex-Mex fare, the restaurant will serve new specials like ribs, brisket and meatball subs, which Dave said were popular when he worked there.
For that reason, the Pflugs said, the restaurant's name is one of the few things about it they didn't change.
"It's the same food, the same menu," Dave said. "We went back and forth on it, but I mean, it's Connie's."