Employees scrambled Thursday to feed the anticipated 2,000 people who filtered into Pepito's for the Mexican-American restaurant's annual Thanksgiving dinner.

Less than a week after the death of Carlos Rodriguez, a key player in the free event to feed the hungry, his absence was felt in more ways than one.

"Today is a good example of how Carlos ran things," said Pepito's founder and owner Joe Senkyr-Minjares. "We're running out of everything -- pop, napkins, potatoes -- all the things he would have taken care of because he jumped on this thing every year."

It wasn't just Rodriguez's efficiency, but his bright spirit that left the staff of the south Minneapolis mainstay mourning for their family member, longtime colleague and friend. Rodriguez, 69, died Nov. 16 from complications of pancreatitis. He worked for more than 41 years as the day manager at the restaurant, which he helped create along with his nephew Senkyr-Minjares and other family members.

Rodriguez's life was defined by his happy reliability. Whether it was for his mother, whom he cared for as she aged, or in day-to-day business at Pepito's, he asked for nothing from others while tirelessly giving his all.

"He was the keeper of the secrets here," Senkyr-Minjares said of Rodriguez's role in the restaurant. "As he went, so went a lot of the old traditions and the old stories, and some of the old ways of doing things around here. Our family here without him is going to have to learn how to walk again."

Rodriguez's personality was as big as his work ethic. He came to work with a new joke every day, and customers weren't spared from his sense of humor. Senkyr-Minjares laughed about how he handled customer complaints. Rodriguez, wearing a bloody apron, would walk from table to table with a butcher knife, demanding to know who made the complaint.

Rodriguez, a loyal North Sider, was the 12th of 15 children. He graduated from North High School where he lettered in football and wrestling for the Polars and was also a Junior Golden Gloves boxer.

After graduation, he was the lead singer in an R&B group called Mota along with Senkyr-Minjares and others. Rodriguez never married, but his family and the restaurant were his true loves. He leaves behind a heartbroken family and staff that loved him equally.

For many on the staff, he had the role of understanding family, Senkyr-Minjares said, particularly Latino employees.

On Thursday, they wore blue ribbons in memory of Rodriguez. It was the least they could do to honor a man so integral to so many lives, Senkyr-Minjares said.

"He was just a bright spirit," he said. "Carlos brought humor to the restaurant."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921