Quirky Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s heads to Washington area

A 2001 photo of a Chuy's Restaurant in Austin. The Tex-Mex chain is rapidly expanding, with four new locations planned for the Washington area. (Deborah Cannon/AP) A 2001 photo of a Chuy’s Restaurant in Austin. The Tex-Mex chain is rapidly expanding, with four new locations planned for the Washington area. (Deborah Cannon/AP)

Chuy’s, a chain of quirky Tex-Mex restaurants with a cult-like following, is setting its sights on the Washington area.

First up for the Austin, Tex.-based chain: A Fairfax location on Lee Highway scheduled to open Aug. 26.

A second restaurant at Springfield Towne Center is expected to open this fall. Two more locations are planned for Sterling and Gainesville.

As in all of its restaurants, the new Chuy’s locations will include shrines to Elvis Presley, a La Chihuahua Bar featuring framed pictures of local dogs, metal palm trees and a hubcap-covered ceiling.

“We think Washington is going to end up being one of our largest markets,” said Michael Hatcher, director of real estate and development for Chuy’s. “We’re focusing on Northern Virginia right now, but eventually we’ll push up to D.C. and Maryland.”

Eventually, Hatcher says he expects the company to have about a dozen stores in the Washington area.

“There are really not a lot of players here doing Tex-Mex — and certainly not at our price point,” Hatcher said, adding that a typical meal for one person at the casual eatery costs about $14.

The company, founded in 1982, grew very slowly — and locally — for more than two decades. Chuy’s had eight locations — all in Texas — as of 2006, when a private equity firm purchased a majority stake in the company.

An era of rapid national expansion followed. Today, the company has 55 locations in 14 states.

“Our strategy is to open a cluster of stores at a time,” Hatcher said, adding that regional managers are generally assigned to oversee five restaurants. “If they can hit all five of those without driving more than a few hours, it’s a much more efficient way to grow from a cost perspective.”

Chuy’s, which went public two years ago, has annual revenue of about $173 million. During the first quarter of this year, the company said sales grew 25 percent to $46.7 million, up from $37.5 million the year before.

“With a solid start to 2014, we remain excited about the opportunities ahead,” Steve Hislop, president and chief executive of Chuy’s, said in a recent call with investors.

Abha Bhattarai covers local retail, hospitality and banking for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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