After reading this paragraph, and before reading the next one, take 10 seconds to ponder which Winnipeg restaurant of yesteryear you wish were still around.
Have 10 seconds passed? We’ll take your word for it.
So… did you say Chi-Chi’s?
No bygone joint seems to be more missed in these parts than the Mexican chain of yore that served up chajitas (a portmanteau of Chi-Chi’s and fajitas) chimichangas, enchiladas and other sour-cream- and cheese-slathered delights.
Why does this sorta-schlocky-seeming restaurant still occupy the minds of so many Winnipeggers? This reporter, at the tender age of 26, missed out on the Chi-Chi’s era and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. That is, until he sought out fellow citizens to find out why it is so fondly remembered to this day and still comes up in many an internet discussion.
It turns out the reasons are many, and all these reasons come together as well as enchiladas with refried beans and Mexican rice to give a full picture of why Chi-Chi’s is remembered as it is.
The first thing going for Chi-Chi’s was the food itself. While we look at the menu now and say it’s undoubtedly Americanized Tex-Mex, at the time, many Winnipeggers saw it as somewhat exotic. It acted as an "introduction" to Mexican food for that generation. Just because it isn’t "authentic" doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty.
Before diners even placed an order for their main, their tables were hit with unlimited free warm tortilla chips and a variety of salsas.
“I always had trouble eating my very generous entree as I always gorged on the fantastic salsa and taco chips they served while you waited.” ‐ Gisèle Bédard
"I always had trouble eating my very generous entree as I always gorged on the fantastic salsa and taco chips they served while you waited," Gisèle Bédard said.
"Can you beat never-ending free chips and salsa?" Rhonda Prepes asked, likely rhetorically.
Rob Chernak, who worked at Chi-Chi’s in 1986 and 1987, said the chips were always fresh, never more than an hour old. "They were constantly frying chips," he said.
Don Bracken — whose first full-time job was at Chi-Chi’s — recalled the enchiladas, seafood nachos and chicken burritos as popular, in addition to the massive strawberry and strawberry-banana margaritas.
Bracken also recalled the chile con queso dip and soft tacos. Many Winnipeggers mentioned to the reporter visiting specifically for the happy-hour taco bar and the lunch buffet.
Bracken, who worked there until May 1985, started as a busser then became a server. One of the Day 1 employees at the 385-plus seat location at 1640 Maroons Rd., he recalled the busy atmosphere.
"Being I was only 15 starting there, I found it busy, but was able to keep pace fine. We had to clear tables within two minutes once customers left, I believe, then greet them within two minutes of being seated... (management) timed us all the time."
Chi-Chi’s was founded by former Green Bay Packers receiver and punter Max McGee and restaurateur Marno McDermit in 1975 in Minneapolis. By the early 1980s, it was growing fast, and opened 45 new restaurants between 1981 and 1983, according to a Mashed article.
Two of those locations were in Winnipeg: on Regent Avenue, in addition to the Maroons Road location that opened in 1982.
Colin Jackin, who worked as a Chi-Chi’s prep cook in the early ’80s, remembers getting burn marks on his arms every day cooking in the bustling kitchen.
"I remember coming in at 7 a.m. and doing nothing but prep work until at least noon. Making queso, shredding lettuce and cheese by the gallons. I’d switch to cooking if it got busy," he said, recalling a row of 10 ovens all at 400 F. "Each dish would cook for no longer than eight to 10 minutes, timers going off constantly. The whole place was a machine!"
The entrees were well-liked, but perhaps shown up by a novel dessert: deep-fried ice cream with a crispy cinnamon topping, whipped cream and a cherry. It was mentioned dozens upon dozens of times in the comments of a Facebook post the reporter made on a local group.
"The big deal for us back when they first opened was the whole concept of fried ice cream — we didn’t understand it," Noreen Janzen said. "But it was fantastic."
"It was hot and cold and covered in whipped cream… what was not to love?" Lynne Robson asked — again, likely rhetorically.
Another drawing point was the lively atmosphere that seemed to appeal to absolutely everybody. A non-pretentious place that didn’t take itself too seriously, it was family-friendly, colourful and ran unapologetically campy commercials on television.
But Chi-Chi’s also attracted the drinking crowd into the lounge with cheap specials on beers and margaritas, trivia nights and a free appetizer bar on Saturday afternoons.
The flagship location was also key, right near Polo Park and across the street from Winnipeg Stadium and Winnipeg Arena, the homes of the Blue Bombers and original NHL Jets, respectively. It became the pre- and post-game and event spot par excellence.
“Nothing beat going to a late-season afternoon Bomber game, hitting Chi-Chi’s for dinner, then heading next door for an early-season Jets game. The perfect trifecta.” ‐ David Hanson
"Nothing beat going to a late-season afternoon Bomber game, hitting Chi-Chi’s for dinner, then heading next door for an early-season Jets game. The perfect trifecta," David Hanson said.
"I used to go early afternoon before a Jets game and get trashed on tacos and margaritas," admitted Rob Mitchell, "then stagger over to Winnipeg Arena."
"The energy in the restaurant was positive — almost a part of the game," Jim Langdon said.
With its proximity to both venues, Chi-Chi’s was not only frequented by attendees: it was frequented by the sports and rock stars themselves.
Marilyn Cameron was a cocktail waitress and bartender at the Regent location between 1983 and 1987. She recalls "Margaritaville Tuesdays" being "insanely busy and fun," and that large groups would pass around a chip basket to collect tips for her.
She said she once witnessed a "do-you-know-who-I-am tantrum" from none other than Wayne Gretzky himself when he had to wait for a table.
"The poor hostess was only 16 and he made her cry," she said of the Great One’s outburst. "Now every time I hear ‘Gretzky’ that’s what I think of. He was the hockey king then so it really shocked me."
Tom Armstrong worked at Chi-Chi’s from 1981 to 1986 and eventually became head waiter. He remembers serving plenty of big-name CFL and NHL talent, including the Montreal Canadiens Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt. He served the pair until 2 a.m. on a Sunday evening though the restaurant closed at 10.
For all its popularity, the chain was short-lived. By August 1993, a headline appeared on the Free Press front page: "Chi Chi’s on verge of folding."
That may seem strange, considering it seemed to have everything going for it: great food, happy staff, fun atmosphere, good prices and a killer location. The Free Press article even acknowledged Chi-Chi’s was profitable.
But the ownership was suspect.
In June 1992, Chi-Chi’s Winnipeg locations and seven others across Canada were purchased by Heartland Restaurants Ltd. for $6 million. Heartland then opened up three more outlets.
But only a year later, it was revealed Heartland was $7.8 million in the red, and on July 13, it sought court protection to hold off more than 100 creditors.
Bryan Dudek and Kye Wong, two Winnipeg businessmen who assembled the Heartland group of investors, got $1 million of that $6 million investment from the Bison Fund of Manitoba Ltd. The Bison Fund took in money from the federal government’s Immigrant Investor Program.
The program was launched by the federal Tories under prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1986 to attract experienced businesspeople to Canada. It targeted wealthy would-be immigrants from Hong Kong who "were willing to pay to get to the head of the line before the 1997 takeover by Beijing," the Free Press wrote in 1998.
Immigrants would invest $150,000 in a Canadian fund in exchange for a landed work visa and "funds sprang up like mushrooms to accommodate the Asian money," including Dudek’s Bison Fund.
But Dudek’s fund — which grew to $12 million — gave very little return on investment, amounting to little more than a scam.
Instead of investing it in "export-oriented industries ensuring long-term jobs in Manitoba," as he was supposed to, Dudek used the money to purchase Chi-Chi’s and prop up his other failing companies, including an apparel firm and his and Wong’s four Arby’s restaurants.
Dudek was convicted of fraud over $5,000 and theft over $5,000 by the Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Richard J. Scott in 1998, who found "the accused used his position to wrongfully divert funds into his own failing enterprises and to charge fees that were not legitimate," according to the Court of Appeal document.
Dudek was sentenced to four years in prison in 1999, but Scott deleted a $1.8 million restitution order, as "the accused was financially ruined and could not pay restitution."
Despite the chain’s unceremonious demise in Winnipeg and North America, Chi–Chi’s still reminds Winnipeggers of simple and happy times, of their halcyon days. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia.
The entire Chi-Chi’s chain went bust in North America about a decade later. In 2002, owner Prandium Inc. filed for bankruptcy and in October 2003, Chi-Chi’s itself filed for Chapter 11.
A month later, Chi-Chi’s was the cause of the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history, which hastened its demise. Six hundred sixty people got ill and four people in the Pittsburgh area died after eating tainted green onions at the Beaver Valley Mall location in Monaca, Pa. Chi-Chi’s paid out at least US$40 million in related settlements and attempted to sue the green onion supplier, but was unsuccessful.
In August 2004, Outback Steakhouse bid US$42.5 million for the rights to purchase Chi-Chi’s 76 remaining restaurants, but did not purchase the name, operations or any of the recipes. On the weekend of Sept. 18, 2004, the remaining 65 stores were shuttered for good.
Chi-Chi’s still exists in Asia, Europe, and North Africa. The name also adorns a line of retail food products that includes jarred salsas, queso dips and tortilla chips.
Despite the chain’s unceremonious demise in Winnipeg and North America, Chi-Chi’s still reminds Winnipeggers of simple and happy times, of their halcyon days. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia.
Happy times for people such as Aleem Kham, who went with his buddies the night before Van Halen played Winnipeg Arena on April 25, 1984, on a hunch that the glam metal band would be there because they liked Mexican food. Their hunch was bang-on.
"We met Michael Anthony, the bass player. He was kind enough to let us sit down and spend a few minutes at his table," Kham said. "It meant a lot to a couple of teenaged boys."
Former server Bracken concurred as well. "I think overall I enjoyed my time there, and if one opened again I’d be in the line waiting to get in."