Chuy’s Mexican restaurant prides itself on its whimsical atmosphere—tiles that don’t match, bright uncoordinated colors, hubcaps hanging from the ceiling and a black velvet Elvis portrait that’s the centerpiece for the Elvis “shrine.”
One of the newest additions to the Chuy’s chain, started 30 years ago in Texas, opened in December 2011 in Dunwoody. It too has a number of playful touches, including an open car trunk of help-yourself chips and sauces and a bar decorated with framed photos of customers’ dogs.
Folks at Chuy’s say the only thing they take seriously is the food. “We’re lunatics about quality,” said area supervisor John Mountford. “Everything is made fresh. There’s not one thing on the menu that comes in pre-made. We don’t even have a freezer, except a small one for ice cream. The tortillas come in as flour; the salsa comes in as fresh vegetables. We even grate the cheese here,” he said.
Mountford said that many Tex-Mex restaurant chains start with a fresh-food philosophy, but at some point start cutting corners. “Chuy’s has been around for 30 years and we haven’t diluted our commitment to quality in any way. There probably are things we could compromise on, but we don’t know which ones would matter to our customers, so we don’t compromise anything,” he said.
A veteran of the restaurant business, Mountford said when he was introduced to Chuy’s by its CEO, a friend of his, he was taken not only with the food, but also with the corporate philosophy, which is that the business is operated to the benefit of all involved—employees, customers, vendors. The hand-painted original art has become its own industry for some small villages in Mexico, he said. One has built the local economy on the Chuy’s hand-carved and painted fish.
Mountford said he went to Texas and submerged himself in the business for a while, learning every job and attending every opening. He said he knew that he wanted to open a Chuy’s in the Atlanta area and when the property near Perimeter Mall that had been Fire of Brazil became available, he jumped on it. “We needed a large building with lots of parking space and that’s not always easy to find,” he said.
Making sure customers have an enjoyable experience is at the heart of everything Chuy’s does, Mountford said. “If a customer wants something different from the way it’s presented on the menu we do what we can to accommodate them. If they want a half order, we’ll do that. If they want a gluten-free meal—and when you think of gluten-free, you normally don’t think of Mexican food—we’ll do that for them. We like to say, ‘why say no, when you can say yes?’”
Mountford said he was pleased to discover that Atlantans are adventurous and sophisticated in their food tastes. He said sometimes customers come to Tex-Mex restaurants expecting to find everything covered in “that same thin red sauce.”
“We have a wide variety of sauces and food like the best of what you’d find served at home in south Texas. It’s light and fresh and won’t leave you with that heavy feeling that people sometimes associate with Mexican food. I’m glad to see so many customers who appreciate that,” he said.
Mountford said the restaurants are designed to be welcoming for the entire family. “We love children,” he said, pointing out such touches as the half-hidden monkeys and iguanas in the décor that children have fun—and can even win a free dessert—looking for.
Among the restaurant chain’s several sayings is “If you’ve seen one Chuy’s, you’ve seen one Chuy’s.” That’s Chuy’s officials’ way of saying that although they’re a chain each restaurant is unique. Each owner-manager decorates according to his own whims and even customizes the menu based on customer preferences.
There are signature dishes available at all Chuy’s restaurants and customers can count on finding an eclectic décor that features bright colors, original Mexican art, hand-carved fish, hanging hubcaps and an Elvis shrine.
As with most aspects of Chuy’s, there’s a story behind the décor. The original Chuy’s was started on the cheap in an abandoned building that had once been a barbecue joint. Instead of carefully selecting tiles and paints, the owners bought marked-down odds and ends then covered a ceiling that was in need of refurbishing with used hubcaps. At the end of the process, they had $20 left in their decorating budget. They used it to buy two black velvet portraits—one of Stevie Wonder and one of Elvis Presley. Customers started donating Elvis memorabilia to go with the portrait and thus the Elvis shrine has become one of the restaurant’s signatures.
As to the name Chuy’s—that’s a story, too. On one of the early buying trips to Mexico, the owners discovered that Chuy is an oft-used nickname for one of the most common names in Mexico, Jesus (pronounced HEY-zoos). “Sometime when you don’t know a fellow’s name, you might say, ‘hey, Chuy,’ the way we might say, ‘hey, Mack.’ They decided that would be a good name for the restaurant—Chuy’s,” Mountford explained.