Tucson restaurateur Carlotta Flores was in the middle of a dental exam earlier this month when she got the news.
Forbes magazine had named her one of its “50 Over 50” women in business who aren’t letting age slow them down.
“So very humbling,” Flores, who heads her family’s Si Charro restaurant group that includes the flagship El Charro Café, said of making the Forbes “Vision” list of women making a difference in society and culture through health care, the arts and other areas.
It is one of four “50 Over 50” lists compiled by the business magazine from more than 10,000 nominations it received early this year.
Flores, 74, is in prestigious company that includes fashion designer Eileen Fisher, Google engineering Vice President Marian Croak, actress and activist Geena Davis, ABC News President Kimberly Godwin and Texas oil company owner Marsha Hendler.
“I represent a lot of women that …maybe they’re not Kamala Harris, but maybe, in their own life, they are,” Flores said.
Vice President Harris was included in the initial list, released in June, that also had Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng, BioNTech biochemist and Senior VP Katalin Karikó, Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer and “Grey’s Anatomy” producer/creator/screenwriter Shonda Rhimes.
Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Equality Now Global Executive Director Yasmeen Hassan and Library of Congress librarian Carla Hayden are on the “Impact” list, released in July; a fourth list, dubbed “Investment,” is coming out soon.
Forbes teamed up with MSNBC “Morning Joe” cohost Mika Brzezinski’s “Know Your Value” movement last December to launch the magazine’s “50 Over 50” project highlighting women over 50 who have achieved significant success later in life and are continuing to make an impact.
Initially, the magazine was going to create a single list, but after the overwhelming response, it expanded the project to highlight more women.
Flores appears to be the only restaurateur so far to be included after being nominated by her longtime friend Gloria Alvillar and longtime admirer Rosalie Crowe. The pair also tapped Tucson publicist Norma Gentry, who works with Si Charro, to help compile information for the nomination.
Nominating Flores was Crowe’s idea and it came two days before the March 1 deadline. Crowe said she had been watching Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” when the host announced the fast-approaching deadline.
“I was thinking we ought to get someone from out here, not just your standard CEOs. And I thought of Carlotta right away,” said Crowe, a retired journalist who knows Flores through their volunteer work with the University of Arizona Chicano/Hispanic Student Affairs & Resource Center.
The trio scrambled to put together a convincing argument that Flores deserved to be recognized. Alvillar sent the nomination with just hours to spare.
As soon as she hit send on her computer, she realized she had left off information about the number of employees — 400 now, 500 pre-pandemic — that Flores has and the number of restaurants, which also includes licensing agreements for their brands at several airports and MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Alvillar, who worked for 30 years at the University of Arizona including leadership roles in facilities management and University Libraries, called Forbes editor Maggie McGrath to see if she could amend the nomination.
While she had the New York editor on the phone, Alvillar gushed about Flores and Tucson and invited McGrath to visit.
“I told her we are the UNESCO City of Gastronomy. We will take you around. You will not only eat at El Charro, we will take you to all of the restaurants. You’re just going to have a ball here,” Alvillar recalled of the conversation. “I said, ‘You’ve got to meet (Flores). You give us so few words to tell you about the magic of this woman and this city.’ I wanted her to know that this is just an amazing, amazing person.”
Flores said the nomination took her by surprise, even though she had spoken with McGrath two days before the list was announced on Aug. 12.
McGrath told Flores she was a finalist and interviewed her. Flores chalked up the experience initially as just one more “best-of” list that will probably come with an ask for some nominal fee as so many national listings do.
But when the news of the lists hit social media, Flores said she realized it was legit.
“I can’t grasp it totally yet,” she added.
Flores and the other nominees share one thing in common: “A pay-it-forward mindset” and resolve to work “to solve some of society’s biggest issues, including health care access for all, food security, rights for the differently-abled and much more,” McGrath said in a written statement.
Flores has been paying it forward since she took over El Charro in 1972 from her aunt Monica Flinn, El Charro’s founder. Flinn had run the restaurant since opening it in 1922 and at age 90 was looking for her successor.
Flores and her husband, Ray Sr., came home from California with their two young children — their daughter was born a year or so later in Tucson — to take over the restaurant.
Even in the early days, Flores’s son Ray said his mother was involved in the community, serving on boards and volunteering her time and the restaurant’s food to charitable events.
“My mom would always tell me … sometimes you have to give more than you get if you want to get somewhere,” said Ray Flores, who helps run the family business. “My mom volunteered constantly, she was on boards constantly. She just got engaged. She was always involved.”
“Looking at her story and history of building something, of course you look up to her,” said Maria Mazon, chef-owner of Boca Tacos y Tequila who has been leaving her own mark on Tucson’s culinary landscape in recent years. “Oh shoot, she did it! And now that the times are hard, she keeps opening and reinventing what she built. It’s what she built that got her where she’s at.”
“She deserves it,” Mazon added. “When you are building something, you don’t think about in the future. … Imagine what she just dreamed up and look what she has now.”