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How do you remain sensitive to a 95-year-old restaurant’s heritage?

We have to protect the legacy and not depart from that, while still being an appeal concept to a younger generation. That’s the great balance. We are fortunate to have the legacy, but we have to grow and be relevant and current to the new users coming into the market.

How does that translate to the menu?

We have Tex-Mex classics and specialty items. We also roll out limited-time offers, like a Hatch chile special or a special tamale trio. We’ll continue to add new menu items.

What are the most popular classic menu items?

Cheese enchiladas and rice and beans. Beef enchiladas and tacos. The recipes have been the same for many, many decades.

Firedbird Restaurant Group's two-unit Meso Mayo also has plans for expansionYou’ve expanded into other brands with two-unit Meso Maya and La Ventana. What was the thinking there?

I looked at the competition, and I saw the same thing in the market, which is basically two items with rice and beans. What we in Texas think is authentic Mexican is actually Tex-Mex. So I wanted to build a true authentic Mexican restaurant and kind of depart from the rest of the crowd and venture out to do something different but yet familiar enough not to scare off guests. The menu has fresh, bold and earthy type of flavors — more seafood, black beans, plantains, moles, roasted chiles.

Does that allow you to run a higher check average?

It does, for sure. There’s also a little higher alcohol mix in the stores as well. The per person average is close to double what El Fenix is.

How do you distinguish the décor package from El Fenix?

The décor is totally different. It’s a simple modern design. The downtown [unit] is in a historic building that has a different vibe.

How do the brands differ in size?

A typical El Fenix is about 6,500 square feet and 200 seats. The downtown [Meso Maya] location is 10,000 [square feet], but we only finished out 5,000 [square feet], which will allow for expansion upstairs with 140 seats.

What’s the most exciting thing for each of the brands going forward?

We’ve refined El Fenix and we have a new model that’s under design. We have a new menu that will protect Tex-Mex classics but have some new items as well. We have slow growth, but we’re looking beyond the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and looking for some expansion of El Fenix.

How will you chart that expansion?

It will be tight concentric circles around our base. Meso Maya, we think, is more of a national platform. We may have four stores in the [Fort Worth] metroplex and jump outside to some bigger cities like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless