The Old Grill In Cantamar Succumbs

Very sad death for any of us who hung out there, and who didn’t?

For many years John and Victoria owned and operated the bar and restaurant known as the Grill, or the Palm Grill and sometimes the Cantamar Grill because it was in downtown Cantamar. Then John and Victoria retired, and turned it over to Ruben, who used to be a waiter. He started that career at the original La Fonda, under Joe Dimitri. When Ruben took over the Palm, it became known as Ruben’s Grill. Then the owner of the building died and it all went to hell. The squabbling heirs finally just kicked Ruben out while they sorted things out, so Ruben moved his eats into what was the recreation center for a residential area. The restaurant was actually behind a gate and you had to talk your way past a guard. Still, due to great prices and great food, Ruben was able to do all right until he finished building his new restaurant just a few hundred yards south. It’s the low slung building with mother of all thatched roofs.

The squabbling kids have got it sorted out, and the area is on the move. Carlos’ widow got most of Cantamar, including the new restaurant that Ruben moved into. The son, Carlitos, got the building that was just torn down.

 Today there is one of Mexico’s ubiquitous convenience stores, Oxxo, at Primo Tapia. You’re familiar with Oxxo of course, that would be Mexico’s version of a health food store. Not.

cantamar.jpgLast weekend the palapa roofed building that was the anchor to that entire corner at km 48, the Palm Grill, came down in a cloud of dust. The whole shebang was reduced to a pile of rubble. Turns out that Circle K, a large Gringo company, had bought the land from Carlito Borja, heir to one of the family’s land parcels. After demolition, they are going to construct a new Circle K convenience store and small shopping plaza. It will stretch from the lighthouse and new Rubens Restaurant north almost to the Cantamar guard shack. It extends back from the highway to the volleyball court.

The jefe drew out the plan in the sand for us. The project is L shaped with new Circle K on the south side, and retail shops and other restaurants on the back side. We were told that two of the new tenants will be a couple of other Gringo icons, Subway and Starbucks, but this comes from the workers and could not immediately be confirmed. Gas pumps will be in front. The old gas station south of the old Palm will be torn down. 

Circle K is an international chain of convenience stores owned and operated by the Canadian based Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. That company also bought the Mexican convenience stores Tiendas Extra (878 stores) from Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo in 2014. 

Prior to that sale, CCK (operating under the banner Circle K in Mexico since 2005) operated or sublicensed more than 275 Circle K stores here, a tiny fraction of the 12,000 outlets the company runs worldwide. Mexico’s convenience store market is currently dominated by the Oxxo chain, owned by Mexican Coca Cola bottler and retailer FEMSA, which operates more than 11,000 Oxxo stores in the country.  Heineken has bought in now, and operates the beer end of the $19 billion a year business. (5th largest company in Mexico).

As is obvious at Cantamar, Circle K is aggressively setting out to improve its market share in Mexico. In addition to new stores (There is already a Rosarito  Circle K), they will rebrand more than 700 of the existing Extra convenience stores located throughout Mexico to the Circle K brand by August 2017.              

CCK plans to see the number of Circle K stores in Mexico grow to 1,100 by August 2017 and minimum 2,400 by 2030.

We were told that the Cantamar store is to be even bigger that the Rosarito one. Consider that the average Circle K is 2,500 to 4,000 sq. ft., — so that is a big footprint, especially when you add the gas pumps and retail shops.

They are not wasting time, either. They had a large crew working Saturday and Sunday, and by Monday morning there was just a large gap where a beautiful restaurant surrounded by lots of palm trees used to sit. It was a sad site for anyone who is an old timer around here. What is to take the place of traditional bars like this? The likes of Splash? Great food, nice people, and decent prices, but the facility is utterly lacking in charm. And the parking is a nerve racking mess. And it’s very noisy inside. Maybe when that building is old and creaky like the Palm, it will have grown some charm. Come to think of it, isn’t that how we all have become charming? By growing old.

Well, we’ve never been in an Oxxo in Mexico that wasn’t crowded, so apparently there’s room for competition. But at our front gate – less than 100 yards away from the homes under the palm trees? Sigh.

We walked up to Los Piños, one of the two original little stores that is still there and, while buying a few small items chatted up one of the granddaughters of the original owners. We didn’t have the heart to tell her about Circle K coming.

Mexico just doesn’t seem the same anymore.   

Greg Niemann is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit