Emerging Concepts | August 2010 | By Judy Kneiszel

Chilorio’s Very Mexican

Founder Diego Cortes used his mother’s cooking inspiration for his Mexican concept.

Many of the recipes for the salsas made fresh daily at Chilorio’s Very Mexican came from the mother of the Monterrey, Mexico-born founder of the concept, Diego Cortes. The recipes were tweaked by Chilorio’s executive chef Antonio Marquez, whom Cortes calls “one of the best chefs in Mexico.”

“The salsa bar is very important to our customers,” Cortes says. “We always have at least 10 different salsas in all degrees and tastes.”

Four of the salsas—Chilorio’s Special, Macho Molcajete, Green Tomatillo, and Red Salsa—are also sold in bottles at both of the chain’s locations. Other salsas available in house include Hot Tomatillo, Chile de Arbol, Roasted Peppers, Morita, Habanero Relish, Avocado Salsa, Pico de Gallo, and Borracha Salsa. 

A yearning for these tastes of Mexico is what got the Chilorio’s concept started as an MBA project for Cortes when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

“I found mom and pop Mexican restaurants and high-end Mexican restaurants and nothing in between,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I create something unique that’s authentic, affordable, clean, and fresh?’”

The project outlined his ideas for an authentic quick-serve Mexican restaurant, and after earning his MBA, Cortes returned to Mexico, where he teamed up with Marquez to create a menu and procedures to offer food to Americans just as it was served in Mexico. 

“I spent a lot of time watching my mom and the chef doing those recipes, and I documented it all with pictures,” he says.

After the recipes were mastered, Cortes brought his project to fruition in Miami. 

At Chilorio’s, meals are built in front of the customers, but there are two ways to order. Guests can choose from signature menu items like the $8.88 Pirata grilled burrito, which consists of a flour tortilla filled with grilled marinated steak, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and avocado chunks and served with black beans. Another popular menu item is the $10.98 Enchiladas made with soft corn tortillas stuffed with marinated shrimp, mild avocado salsa, and Monterey Jack cheese and served with white lime rice.

The second ordering option is the create-your-own offering. Diners pick either a taco, grilled burrito, tostada, or quesadilla, then choose the type of tortilla, meat, and cheese they want, plus anything else from a dizzying array of sides and salsas.

“We’re all about customization,” Cortes says. “You can choose what you like and then watch as your tortilla is made fresh in front of you.”

An average ticket at Chilorio’s is about $10. Prices range from a create-your-own taco for $3.04 to the Brocheta Mexicana (Shrimp Skewer) for $12.98. Beverages are extra and range from standard fountain soft drinks to bottled Mexican juices, sodas, and beers. Mexican desserts, Arroz con Leche (rice pudding), and flan are available to top off a meal. 

Cortes says making tortillas to order on a machine in front of customers provides diners with a product many are unfamiliar with: a fresh, authentic tortilla that’s not chewy.

Cortes makes it clear that by authentic he means modern Mexican, which is why customers don’t see a serape or sombrero in the place. He teamed up with an architecture and design firm in Mexico to develop the design and décor for a clean, streamlined look. Each Chilorio’s is about 2,200 square feet and has indoor and outdoor seating for 70–85 guests. 

CHILORIO'S VERY MEXICAN

PRESIDENT: Diego Cortes

HQ: Miami

YEAR STARTED: 2009

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 2

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

www.chilorios.com

The modern Mexican ambience is also carried out through music. 

“We don’t play mariachi music the whole time, although from time to time we might,” Cortes says. “We play the music you’d hear at modern restaurants in Mexico.”

A third and probably fourth Chilorio’s are set to open in the Miami-Dade area by 2011. Cortes says he wants to have at least five corporate stores before starting to franchise. 

“We are already running our stores like they were franchises,” Cortes says. “And when we do start franchising I want to be very close so we can help. I want to grow organically in the state.”

The first Chilorio’s, located in the heart of Coral Gables, is a stand-alone building near both a business district and residential neighborhoods. The South Miami location is on heavily traveled U.S. Highway 1, giving it high visibility, which Cortes says brings in a lot of new customers.

“We want to do some smaller locations in downtowns or malls,” Cortes says. “We really want to keep trying other models to see what works, what’s better.”

His approach to advertising is similar in these early stages of expansion.

“We do a lot of menu and flier distribution to businesses and houses,” Cortes says. “We also run ads in theaters before the movies and TV ads. We’re doing a lot of magazines and newspapers in the area.” 

Community involvement is also bringing new customers through the doors. 

“We help soccer teams, scouts, schools, church groups, and other charities by giving them 20 percent of the proceeds for a day if they distribute fliers promoting the event,” Cortes says. “We also do a similar promotion with businesses where we give a discount on certain days to their employees so they get to know us.”

Cortes plans to have four stores up and running in the Miami area, and he believes a lot more people will have gotten to know, and appreciate, authentic, fresh, quick-serve Mexican.