Ronnie and Sandra Saenz, the husband-and-wife team behind Spanky’s Burgers, a Brownsville institution, are celebrating their 20th year in business this month by taking the Fourth of July weekend off.

It’s a rare break for the couple, interviewed July 2 at their comfortable Palm Boulevard eatery with its Americana-meets-British Invasion décor, shoulder patches from Ronnie’s 20 years with the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department prominently displayed on the wall, along with classic Hollywood and Beatles posters, opposite portraits of Elvis, John Wayne, Laurel and Hardy and such.

If July 4 weren’t typically a slow weekend the Saenzes would likely be putting in the hours, a work ethic they say is the reason they’ve managed to navigate the hard times — including a recession and a pandemic for instance — and keep serving their loyal customer base.

Ronnie said he’d always wanted to own a burger joint, though his only business experience was two years working behind the counter at Dairy Queen when he was in high school. It proved invaluable in his own venture, and together with Sandra he took the plunge into the burger business after leaving the sheriff’s department.

Spanky’s Burgers opened its doors on July 4, 2001, in a former store at 1355 Palm Blvd. The stretch of road saw heavy traffic when Amigoland Mall was still in operation on Mexico Boulevard, though the mall was shuttered and the traffic gone by the time the Saenzes opened their restaurant, jumping in with both feet and vowing to stick it out no matter what. Still, the early years were tough, and sometimes they thought about throwing in the towel, the couple admitted.

“It was extremely difficult,” Sandra recalled. “The first week we sold less than $250.”

Ronnie said they struggled for about five years to stay afloat before things started to turn around.

“There were many days, Sandra and myself, we would be here by ourselves, cooking and mopping,” he said. “But that’s what it takes. We just didn’t give up. We kept moving forward.”

A handwritten menu of burgers, sandwiches, lighter fare and Mexican food sprawls over the ordering counter Friday at Spanky’s Burgers. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The Saenzes’ business model was based on a consistent, quality product, with locally sourced ingredients and hand-pressed hamburger patties, and Spanky’s has never deviated from that, Ronnie said.

By year six, sales began increasing slowly, which he credits to a combination of advertising and word-of-mouth. Business was good enough that the couple — Brownsville born and raised, both of them — opened a second location in Harlingen, though with the name Main Street Grill. Then came 2008 and with it a global recession.

“It hit us hard,” Sandra said.

Hard work and perseverance paid off, however, and Spanky’s survived to undergo extensive remodeling in 2010. The old store was “like a dungeon,” Sandra recalled, and the remodel included plenty of big windows to let in the natural light and give the place a relaxed, open atmosphere. Then, like every other restaurant, Spanky’s sustained a blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Saenzes to close their dining room.

Ironically, after years of leasing, the couple finally purchased the building right before the pandemic. Their first mortgage payment came due in March 2020 — the same month they were forced to close. Fortunately, another feature of the remodel was a drive-through window.

“What saved us was our drive-through window and our loyal customers,” Sandra said. “There was a lot of support from the community.”

Sales dropped significantly but Spanky’s kept all its employees on board, rotating shifts to make sure everyone got some hours, she said. The Saenzes also received a federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan, which helped, Ronnie said. The restaurant currently has nine full-time employees plus the Saenzes, who take turns managing the business during the week. The two have full-time jobs in addition to running the restaurant, and Ronnie’s entails regular trips to San Antonio.

The burger business is competitive and the investment of time and energy to make it successful is considerable — even more so with additional locations to tend to, which is why the Saenzes are content with their Palm Boulevard operation for the foreseeable future, Ronnie said.

“At this point we’re happy with taking care of the customers we have now and not change that,” he said. “We’ve also learned that once you start expanding you start losing that touch that people really like. We don’t want to lose that. As long as they’re happy, we’re happy.”

It’s a formula that’s worked for 20 years and the Saenzes aren’t about to tamper with it, not just for the benefit of the restaurant’s longtime loyal customers, but also for the newcomers.

“We still have new customers, even after 20 years,” Sandra said.

Ronnie admitted he’s very proud of the business he and his wife built together, but insisted on giving credit where credit is due.

“I want to thank our customers, family and friends, and our community for supporting us for these 20 years,” he said.