As a Spanish speaker, I must say that the word chichis has never brought to mind a casual dining experience. Yet from the years 1975 to 2003, many people heard “Chi-Chi’s” and thought of a Tex-Mex restaurant chain, one whose namesake was the founder’s wife (chichis, plural, is not the same as Chi Chi, the person). But what happened to this uniquely named establishment? Why don’t we hear about Chi-Chi’s anymore?
Chi-Chi’s Restaurant was first launched in 1975 in Minneapolis, an area lacking in Mexican food options at the time. The founders were Max McGee, former wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, and restaurateur Marno McDermott. As Kiplinger explains, the duo identified a demand for Mexican cuisine as the latest food trend and jumped on it. By 1986, the chain had over 200 locations throughout the Midwest and beyond.
A 1990 article from the Orlando Sentinel (by then, the restaurant had expanded to Florida, too) paints a rather colorful picture of the Chi-Chi’s dining experience at the time.
“If your tastebuds want to travel to Mexico, throw a blanket on your donkey, tie on your sombrero and get to Chi-Chi’s at 909 W. Vine St., Kissimmee,” reads the second paragraph. (Sounds like it was written by the Great British Baking Show producers.)
Chi-Chi’s is noted in the Sentinel as specializing in Sonoran food. Sonora, a state in the northwestern region of Mexico, features cuisine known for having “subtle, less spicy seasoning.” For a chain that formed many Americans’ first impression of Mexican food, Chi-Chi’s likely understood the need to ease diners’ palates into the new fare. It was a savvy approach.
The Sentinel article goes on to explain that the spicier items, should you seek them, are labeled on the menu as “TEX-MEX,” to clearly separate them from the rest of the items on the menu, which are… also Tex-Mex. The writer also warns readers that the restaurant’s carry-out menu does not have the TEX-MEX label next to any of its dishes, so diners can ask about heat levels before ordering. Thank goodness for that.
Despite having made over $2 million in revenue in its first year, Chi-Chi’s didn’t manage to replicate its Midwest popularity in other regions as it attempted to expand. Multiple locations in New York and the New England region failed, as well as locations in Atlanta, Texas, New Mexico, and San Diego.
By the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Chi-Chi’s began reducing its number of locations, but was still chugging along after changes in leadership. Unfortunately, increased competition with casual dining restaurants like Olive Garden and other challenges led the restaurant to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The true nail in the coffin for Chi-Chi’s restaurant, though, came in the form of a 2003 hepatitis outbreak. Contaminated green onions served at a Chi-Chi’s location near Pittsburgh led to more than 600 cases of hepatitis A, killing four people. There was no coming back from that.
Chi-Chi’s maintained a presence in Europe following the closure of its US locations, but as of 2022 even many of those overseas restaurants have disappeared. Chi-Chi’s Germany location is listed as closed on Yelp, and the Belgium location looks to have closed just this year, evidently due to some personal health issues faced by its owner. However, it appears that Chi-Chi’s Restaurant in Vienna, Austria is still going strong.
You really can’t keep a once popular brand from reincarnating. Despite no longer having brick-and-mortar locations in the US, Chi-Chi’s food is still widely available at your local grocery store. Hormel Foods bought the rights to the Chi-Chi’s brand in the United States in 1987 and continues to sell products like dips and salsas under that banner—which keeps the name fresh in the mind of countless Americans. I never visited a Chi-Chi’s restaurant before they closed down, but I’m certainly familiar with the packaged products.
For those of you who hold Chi-Chi’s close to your heart, I must say, I hope your horizons have expanded somewhat since 2003. My donkey and I don’t feel like we missed out on much.