Remember Chi-Chi’s restaurant, back in the 70s & 80s when Mexican food seemed new and exciting?

About the old Chi-Chi's restaurant at Click Americana

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Before Chipotle, there was Chi-Chi’s Mexican food in the 70s & 80s

Growing up in the Midwest in any decade earlier than the 80s meant — very likely — that one’s entire exposure to Mexican food was the bland tacos your mom made with store-bought hard taco shells. (The filling may or may not have had spice… and if it was spiced, the flavoring came out of a seasoning envelope.)

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.

Vintage Chi Chi's menu cover: Uno Mas Cantina

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?

YouTube video

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.

Chi Chi's menu: Luncheon Specials
Vintage Chi Chi’s menu: Luncheon Specials

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

Vintage 1986 Chi-Chi's restaurant 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.

Chi-Chi's restaurant hitory - Company executives in the 1970s
Chi-Chi’s John Stephens and Marno McDermott

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.”

Vintage Chi Chi's restaurant - kids menu
Vintage Chi Chi’s menu for kids

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.

Chi-Chi's grocery store foods available in the 90s (1995)
Chi-Chi’s grocery store foods available in the 90s

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.

Chi-Chi's restaurant for Wichita, Kansas (Dec 1979)

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.”

Vintage Chi-Chi's restaurant appetizer menu and drinks - Bottle stand-up

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.

Chi-Chi's restaurants closed in the US

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!

Retro Chi-Chis menu with margaritas

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.

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Comments on this story

4 Responses

  1. Going to Chi-Chi’s in the 80s and 90s was a big deal; forget trying to get in to the one in our area on a Friday or Saturday night unless you were prepared for a long wait! And there was a good reason why — their food was amazing, simply put. I for one loved their chimichangas. Sadly, Chi-Chi’s couldn’t compete with the more authentic Mexican restaurants that are now popular, and in the US they never recovered from a hepatitis outbreak in the early 2000s linked to their green onions. From what I understand they’re still popular in Europe.

    1. I would go there immediately and order the Pollo Magnifico if it was an option – see if it lives up to my nostalgia hype. In 1988, it was possibly one of the best chicken dishes I’d yet experienced in my young life!

  2. My husband and I were just talking about Chi Chi’s the other day. We used to take his aunt to one in suburban Chicago for the lunch buffet they served there. This would have been sometime during the mid/late 1980’s. At the time we greatly enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would like it as much anymore!

    Used to go to dinner at one in Pennsylvania in the mid 1990’s and enjoyed the entrees. Was sorry to see them go since they’d been around awhile and at one point had been very popular.

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