Before Chipotle, there was Chi-Chi’s Mexican food in the 70s & 80s
Perhaps she got creative in the kitchen with a retro sort of Mexican food recipe, carefully clipped from that month’s issue of Good Housekeeping.
Maybe you also got to have burritos courtesy of the freezer case, but my mom didn’t buy those. And salsa? Well, it wasn’t fresh — just jarred.
Worse still, my only acquaintance with guacamole growing up was the canned stuff (!) you could buy in the chips aisle. I never even experienced a fresh avocado and real guacamole until I was a legal adult — a fact which is astounding to me, looking back. It’s a staple ingredient these days!
“A celebration of food!”
Boy, has our experience with this culinary genre changed significantly since the 70s, especially for those of us Midwesterners who moved to the desert southwest at some point.
Before there was Chipotle and Chevy’s, Baja Fresh and Qdoba, I’m pretty sure it was Chi-Chi’s that changed the Mexican food game for me in the 80s. Remember Chi-Chi’s Mexican-ish food?
Watching that old commercial, is it any surprise to hear this company was started by non-Mexicans in… Minnesota? (Read more about that and the company history below.) Nevertheless, we have Chi Chi’s to thank for at least trying to expand our culinary horizons.
Sure, it was a large chain with a negligibly Mexican food menu, but at the time, it was a gigantic leap forward towards authenticity — as well as our first experience with taking nearly our entire dinner home in a box because we ate too many chips and salsa. Oops. And at least the guacamole was made fresh. – BB
Vintage 80s Chi-Chi’s lunch menu
Chi-Chi’s restaurant history (from 1979)
From an article by Pam Luecke, Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) October 4, 1979
Until 1977, John Stephens & Co. was a securities broker and dealer in Minneapolis. At that point, his company purchased a restaurant operating in conjunction with a popular Minneapolis night spot, the Left Guard.
The restaurant was named Chi-Chi’s, after the nickname of the wife of one of its founders, Marno McDermott. Mr McDermott is now chairman of the board of Chi-Chi’s Inc., and the restaurant’s other founder, Max McGee, also serves on the board.
John Stephens & Co. president Shelley Frank entered the Chi-Chi’s picture when McDermott approached him as a potential head of the company in 1977. The two men had been acquainted from a business transaction several years ago when Frank was involved in new concept development for Heublein and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Frank says he didn’t have any particular urge to leave KFC at the time the Chi-Chi’s possibility presented itself, but one visit to the restaurant in Minneapolis, he claims, convinced him. “I had studied so many different concepts and ideas,” Frank recalled. “This really compared with nothing else I’d seen.”
Frank credits the company’s current happy status to its heavy investment in people. While the three tenets of a successful restaurant used to be “location, location, and location,” Frank maintains they are now “management, management, and management.”
In addition to his own background with KFC and other large restaurant chains, the company’s vice president of operations, Donald Stelley, boasts a background as head of operations for Zantigo’s. Other key personnel, too, Frank says, have been lured away from competing restaurant chains.
And there is competition. Despite the fact that Mexican restaurants in general, and full-service Mexican restaurants in particular, still represent a small portion of the total restaurant business,
Frank is well aware that he and KFC were not the only ones to conclude this segment offers great potential for growth.
Evidence of growing interest in the field can be found in recent acquisitions of Mexican restaurant chains by conglomerates. As he sees it, “Mexican food today is where the pizza business was 12 years ago.”
One barrier to full American acceptance of this ethnic food line, though, is its image, Frank said. Even if people haven’t tried it, he said, they often assume Mexican food will be hot.
Chi-Chi’s menu has consequently been “massaged to appeal to the American palate,” Frank said. To further overcome resistance to trying it, a new Chi-Chi’s traditionally gives its food away during the first week it is open, a trick Frank tried with considerable success back in his Zapata days, he said.
And while prices do not stay free for long, they do remain lower than those of many full-service restaurants. Because of the nature of Mexican food, Chi-Chi’s relies less on costly ingredients such as beef than many of its non-Mexican competitors.
As the Louisville investment firm of Hilliard & Lyons said last month in explaining a strong “buy” recommendation for Chi-Chi’s stock: “Chi-Chi’s could well have hit the soft underbelly of the medium-price sit-down meal so attractive to fast-food patrons whose taste buds have matured.”
Or as Frank observed: “All of the alternatives were getting more expensive. Chi-Chi’s seemed to be positioned exactly where voids existed.”
Are there still Chi Chi’s restaurants around?
So what happened to Chi-Chi’s? Are they still around? The answer is no, at least not in the United States.
Once a super fun and popular spot for Mexican cuisine, Chi-Chi’s faced financial struggles — and was certainly not helped by a damaging blow to its reputation due to a Hepatitis A outbreak in 2003. These challenges led the chain to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closing or selling off its remaining U.S. locations.
As of 2023, if you want to go to a Chi-Chi’s restaurant, there’s just one left — and it’s in Vienna, Austria.
Chi Chi’s salsa and other grocery items
Chi-Chi’s restaurants may no longer exist in the United States, but their salsa didn’t get the memo, and it’s still going strong in grocery stores. Available in various flavors and heat levels, this salsa serves as everything from a chip dip fix to a meat topping.
Chi Chi’s has also expanded its grocery line to include other Mexican staples like tortillas.
While it’s not the same as dining in a Chi-Chi’s restaurant, this shift to retail at least allowed the beloved retro brand to remain part of American kitchens in a new form.
Chi Chi’s alcohol keeps the spirit alive
Missing the chain’s lively, fiesta vibe? You can still find a little piece of Chi Chi’s spirit in your local liquor store!
Yep, the brand rolled out ready-to-drink cocktails and Chi Chi’s alcohol mixes that bring a dash of that old flair right into your home. Mostly inspired by Mexican favorites, like margaritas, they’re handy when you’re feeling a little nostalgic… or just don’t want to mess around with a cocktail shaker.
Chi Chi’s Hepatitis A outbreak
The 2003 Hepatitis A outbreak mentioned above was a critical turning point for Chi-Chi’s, leading to a long-term negative impact on public perception of the brand. Traced back to green onions served at a Pennsylvania location, the outbreak resulted in several deaths and hundreds of illnesses — and multiple lawsuits.
The public health crisis not only affected the well-being of customers, but also marked the beginning of the end for the company’s restaurant operations in the United States.
The incident became a case study of the importance of food safety measures, and had a long-lasting effect on the restaurant industry as a whole.