Chevys Fresh Mex doesn't want to be the same chain it was a few years ago, saddled as it was with poor food quality, a rotating roster of owners, a struggling service staff and an outdated brand.
But its parent company, Cypress-based Real Mex Restaurants, exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week after a group of investors acquired an 85% stake in a $129-million deal.
On the heels of the restructuring, Chevys president Brian Wright says the 26-year-old chain is in the midst of a heavy makeover. A new lunch menu with items such as rice bowls and grilled pineapple salsa has cheap prices and fast turn-around time – a key distinction for the casual sit-down company when fast-casual rivals such as Chipotle threaten to poach customers.
"We're always worried about competition," Wright said. "But customers now can go to fast food and our price point could still be competitive."
Former classics that had been removed from the menu to save costs, such as the brie quesadilla with apples and the seafood enchiladas, are coming back. Portion sizes are bigger. More traditional Mexican foods, such as standard issue burritos, were removed.
"Everything had become very generic – the brands were being homogenized," Wright said.
Employee uniforms are shifting to jeans instead of black slacks. The chain plans to renovate and freshen up its restaurants. Design elements that the company called "dated and crowded" were updated in an attempt to "bring back our mojo."
All this after a turbulent stretch in which Chevys cycled through several owners, including Taco Bell and investment group J.W. Childs Associates, all of whom wanted to "highlight something different about the brand," Wright said.
By October, when Real Mex filed for bankruptcy, it said its restaurants (which also include the El Torito and Acapulco chains) were seeing fewer customers in a difficult economy.
Chevys has a new strategy to keep that from happening again, Wright said.
A nine-restaurant pilot project called La Cocina Fresca is being planned for Sacramento, featuring small display kitchens at the front of the eateries where chefs will make tortillas, quesadillas, soups and more in full view of guests.
A large flat screen will show all the cooking action. And within a month, each tabletop will feature a device that allows guests to order more drinks, pay their check, buy movie tickets and more, Wright said.
Four La Cocina Frescas are up and running. Chevys also plans to implement its technological upgrades in its restaurants in New York’s
Wright has told employees that he hopes to "create this incredibly awesome company."
But "we're not there yet," he said. "We still have a long way to go."