Whatever Happened To Chi-Chi's Restaurants?

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Midwest Friday nights were filled with obligatory family outings that typically started with dinner and came to a finale at the movies or the mall. Those of us who lived through those times can attest to the fact that quite often, the restaurant of choice was none other than Chi-Chi's. With a menu full of toned-down versions of Tex-Mex foods, Chi-Chi's was, for many Americans, an initial introduction to Mexican cuisine.

By the early 2000s, those weekend family dinners were slowly being replaced by newer up-and-coming chains like Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse. Soon, Chi-Chi's seemed to disappear from our radars entirely, becoming only a distant nostalgic memory. But what happened? Although the chain was met with success in the Midwest, other locations — particularly those where Mexican food was already popular — failed to take off.

Chi-Chi's filed for bankruptcy in 2002, but the restaurant's true pièce de résistance when it came to its closure was a hepatitis epidemic the following year. After serving a contaminated batch of green onions at a location on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Chi-Chi's was held accountable for infecting over 600 people with the disease and killing four. The outbreak formidably ruined the brand's reputation in the restaurant industry, leading to the closure of its remaining locations.

Shaky beginnings

When it comes to Chi-Chi's origins, we have to wonder how well the restaurant would have held up in this day and age. The chain was far from traditional or authentic, and that likely has to do with where and how it was created. In 1975, former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Max McGee and restaurant magnate Marno McDermott teamed up after catching wind of the Mexican food trend. Founded in downtown Minneapolis, the time and place were perfect as there weren't many options for Mexican cuisine in the region, and its popularity took off.

The chain was named after McDermott's wife, whose nickname was Chi-Chi. In recent years, however, advocates for diversity have stepped forward with their concern on the ignorance of the name (as "chi-chi's" is Spanish slang for a woman's breasts), expressing that it was difficult to take Mexican culture seriously when the only exposure many had to it was a restaurant with an exploitive name. What's more? While the restaurant grew rapidly in the 1980s as a result of new ownership, it began to crumble from the effects of too much expansion too soon. Outside of the Midwest, locations in New England, New York City, Atlanta, Texas, New Mexico, and more were a major flop.

Ultimately, the combination of expanding too rapidly, failed locations around the country, high rates of management turnover, bankruptcy, backlash from cultural appropriation, and the icing on the cake — a hepatitis outbreak — was the demise of Chi-Chi's.