Chile’s History: The Founder Tells Us How It Started

Yes, the sprawling 1,600-seat chain, one of the country’s largest restaurant groups, got its start in Dallas.

DALLAS — A burger restaurant with a distinctive chili pepper for its logo has more than $3.5 billion in sales in 2021.

About 50 years ago they were shooting for $100 a day.

Chili’s has come a long way since it opened in 1975 on Greenville Avenue in Dallas.

Yes, the sprawling 1,600-seat restaurant, one of the nation’s largest chains, got its start in an old converted post office on Meadow Road in Greenville, Dallas. When the founder of Chili’s recently looked back on the restaurant’s expansion and popularity, he had one key suggestion.

“It proved it was a viable concept,” Larry Lavine said.

Lavine’s pragmatic assessment of Chili’s success story is the same as how their story began in 1975, when Lavine founded the restaurant with Malloy Buckner and John Foshee.

They chose the name Chili’s because chili was on the menu and thought “it would be something people would talk about,” Lavine said.

“People don’t talk about spaghetti and meatballs,” Lavine said.

Lavine worked in clubs and group bookings, then worked with Buckner at a steak and seafood restaurant.

Today, the idea behind their new concept might seem simple: a casual dining spot with a family-friendly menu that also offers drinks. Find a busy corner in most American cities and you’ll see three, if not more, of them.

But building a Chilean practice in the 1970s was like stepping on one foot.

“We were one of the first early casual dining restaurants,” Lavine said.

The food scene was different, he explained. There were nice restaurants and cafes like a steakhouse. Fast food was also available. It was a missing option.

Something nice, but not too expensive. In one place, you can get a burger and a drink without breaking the bank.

Another wrinkle in the dining scene at the time was a Texas law banning the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants. If you wanted to drink, it had to be at a “private club,” and in 1968, Texans voted in favor of “drink-by-drink,” which allowed the sale of liquor in restaurants beginning in 1971. .

Lavine, Buckner and Foshee didn’t start Chile as a result of liquor-by-the-drink; the law had already been in force for several years. But given the timing, they had other items to add to their menus.

Therefore, they asked themselves: What would be the most meaningful?

If someone goes out for a burger after work, do they wash it down with scotch and water? Probably not.

Thankfully, Dallas had another liquor drink at the time: the frozen margarita, founded in 1971 at Mariano’s Hacienda restaurant.

As Lavin recalled, Chili’s founders said, “This is Dallas, Texas.” “They love frozen margaritas.”

Thus, a pillar of the Chili menu was born.

The chain that would become famous for its baby back ribs kept it simple in the beginning: chili, burgers, fries and tacos. Seventy-five cent beer. A dollar – fifty margaritas. Later, they added fajitas and nachos, adding a Mexican twist.

Lavine said it was the little things that made the first Chile tick; at night they turned off the lights and played popular music. Their first location was an old post office that had been turned into a seedy bar. Chili’s founders have updated it with fresh green paint.

“Our challenge was to make it fun,” Lavine said.

Chili’s first goal was $100 a day. Then a Dallas Times-Herald food writer stopped by and praised the restaurant in the paper, Lavine said. He would stop again. And yet more accolades will come in the paper.

“And sales are just going to go up and up,” Lavine said.

Lavine knew something was up months before the restaurant opened. He was sitting in his office and opened the door because it was hot. He heard a commotion outside. A line was drawn around the building as customers waited to enter.

Once the lines started, Lavine said, they never stopped.

Chili’s has expanded from one location in Dallas to another in Houston. It soon became a regional chain.

The Greenville location of the original Chili’s in the Meadow eventually closed and was replaced by another 7-Eleven that was founded in Dallas nearly a decade ago.

By then, Chili’s was already all over the world.

In the early 1980s, the company was bought by the Brinker International restaurant group. Lavine, who still lives in North Texas, left the company around the same time, but he remains a fan.

He recently stopped at a Chili’s and settled in for a meal. As he did in 1975, he kept it simple.

“I had a burger,” Lavine said, “and it was still pretty good. They do a good job with their burgers.”

Chile’s History: The Founder Tells Us How It Started

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