America's 'No. 1 Mexican Restaurant' is Growing Again
Consumer Reports has named Abuelo’s the No. 1 Mexican Restaurant in the U.S. every year since 2006, but it’s the backstory, not the ranking, that makes Robert Lin so proud. After all, the national consumer ratings firm first learned of the regional chain through a write-in campaign from the restaurant’s enthusiastic customer base.
Lin is president of Food Concepts International, the parent company of Abuelo’s (abuelo meaning grandfather in Spanish). He credits consistent quality in both food and service for that annual honor.
The Lubbock, Texas–based chain has 40 locations. Texas boasts the most Abuelo’s with 13, but the brand’s market stretches north to Indiana, east to Virginia, and includes locations in Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma, and six other states. After a recession-induced pause in growth that lasted form 2007 till 2014, Abuelo’s is now growing at a rate of two to three stores a year. All locations are company-owned.
“We’re going to focus on filling existing markets for the next few years,” Lin says. “It helps operationally and in marketing when you have a greater concentration of units.”
Ironically, Abuelo’s was born out of a Chinese chain. In the mid-1980s, its three founding partners—James Young, Chuck Anderson, and Dirk Rambo—were operating about 15 Chinese Kitchen locations. Lin says Chinese Kitchen was fast casual “before there was such a thing as fast casual.”
The proliferation of Chinese buffets in the 1980s was something the three founders didn’t want to battle, so they switched their focus to the development of Abuelo’s. “The founders had done a fair amount of traveling in central and coastal Mexico and fell in love with the food and architecture,” Lin says. “They thought bringing it to the U.S. would be interesting.”
They started slowly, opening the first Abuelo’s in Amarillo, Texas, in 1989. Business at that location was “decent,” Lin says, but it was opening the second restaurant that proved how lucrative the concept could be. By the end of the 1990s there were 10 Abuelo’s across Texas and Oklahoma.
Lin, who is Young’s nephew, left a job at Merrill Lynch and joined the company in 2002, when his uncle asked him to come help grow the business. By the end of 2006, the chain had reached 37 locations.
“When they were traveling through Mexico for inspiration what they enjoyed was the graciousness of real restaurants,” Lin says. “Not the typical border town type of Tex-Mex places where the interior was almost purposely grungy in a fun, casual way. They saw the opportunity to do something where guests could experience what they called real Mexico, and that meant great service and a great variety of food.”
Through that wide variety of food, Abuelo’s can capture different dining occasions: Guests may order an Enchilada Lunch for less than $8, or a hearty dinner entrée like the Pescado Guerrero (grilled sea bass topped with shrimp, sea scallops, mushrooms, spinach, roasted poblano peppers, and avocado, in a white wine sauce) for about $20.
Whether it’s traditional Tex-Mex, tapas, soup, salad, or a signature dish, everything on the Abuelo’s menu is made from scratch using executive chef Luis Sanchez’s family recipes. Lin says Chef Sanchez has been with the brand since the beginning. All sauces and salsas are made fresh from scratch twice a day—before lunch and before dinner.
“A good percentage of our sales are fajitas and enchiladas, or what I call the comfort food of Mexico,” Lin says. “But then if you look in the specialty section of the menu, there are more continental items that you’d find in a really nice upscale restaurant in Mexico.”
It wasn’t just the food that attracted the founders to the Mexican restaurants they discovered on their travels. They also fell in love with the design, which featured bold paintings, statuary, and courtyard seating under open sky. Abuelo’s tries to replicate that ambiance with sky-painted dome ceilings or skylights.
Because of its commitment to scratch cooking, Abuelo’s restaurants are designed with large kitchens. Plans for recently constructed restaurants encompass approximately 7,600 square feet of interior space with the kitchen accounting for about a third. That still leaves room for indoor seating for 250 guests and bar space for enjoying another staple of Mexican dining: the margarita.
“Alcohol sales are not as high as a lot of Mexican chains,” Lin says. “It goes back to ambiance and the demographic of our guests. For border cantinas, it’s a party and alcohol is a big part of their pull. For us, it’s an enhancement of the dining occasion.”
Still, Lin adds that Abuelo’s does have a vibrant social atmosphere in the bar and a variety of drinks that include margaritas made with premium ingredients, including the El Jefe margarita—Diamante tequila, orange liqueur, sweetened lime juice, and grilled orange slices, which give it a spicy, burnt-orange flavor.
In most Abuelo’s locations, the bar is separated from the main restaurant. Although the full menu is available, the tapas/small plates section of the menu is especially conducive to bar dining and includes items like Chicken and Spinach Mini Chimis, Jalapeño Cheese Fritters, and Firecracker Shrimp.
Abuelo’s has seven regional partners, each responsible for quality control at four to eight units. It also employs corporate culinary specialists. “That’s where hiring the right people is really important,” he says. “Our best people are our regional partners. They all have years and years of experience; most have culinary backgrounds.”
Abuelo’s also relies heavily on customer feedback. Customers pay on tabletop tablets and are then prompted to take a survey. Lin says one of the things Abuelo’s has learned through such surveys is that millennials are looking for bolder flavors. As a result, James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Craig Shelton has been tapped to help Abuelo’s develop new recipes and flavor combinations. The recipes will not necessarily be hot, but rather bold, Lin says. “In any business, it’s sometimes good to bring in a fresh pair of eyes,” he adds. “Or in this case, fresh taste buds.”
That doesn’t mean the enchiladas and margaritas will be any less available to the Abuelo’s faithful.
“We cater to people who want Tex-Mex comfort food, as well as those who are more adventurous and want a protein with focus on the flavor profiles of Mexican cuisine,” Lin says.