Oakbrook Terrace gets the first Illinois location of a restaurant that bills itself as “Tex-Mex For All” when Tijuana Flats opens May 31 at the southwest corner of Butterfield and Midwest Roads.
Headquartered in Florida, Tijuana Flats currently has 125 locations, most in the Southeastern part of the country, said Brian Wright, chief executive officer. Of the existing locations, Wright said 18 are franchised, and the rest are corporate owned. He said the Oakbrook Terrace restaurant is owned by a franchise group that plans to open additional locations in the Chicago area.
“We’re very excited about opening in Oakbrook Terrace,” said Wright, who was born in Highland Park. “That area is booming, and Chicago is one of the best food cities in the country.”
Wright called Tijuana Flats a “fast-casual-plus” dining experience. Customers place their orders with the cashier and then sit down, where they are served. The Oakbrook Terrace location has seating for about 65 people indoors and at least 12 outdoors.
“After they sit down, it’s more like casual dining, with the food being brought out and drinks being refilled,” Wright said. “We’re designed to be a little different, and every food item is made from scratch. We also have more items than most of the fast-food, Tex-Mex restaurants, and we can customize anything.”
The regular menu offers wings, sides, starters and desserts, along with entrees, which include a variety of tacos, quesadillas, bowls, burritos, salads, flautas and chimichangas. Smokin’ Chipotle Chicken Chimichanga, Habanero and Agave Glaze Wings, and Cookie Dough Flautas are some of the options. One of the features of Tijuana Flats is a hot sauce bar, which features 12 to 15 flavors.
Very popular is Tijuana Tuesdaze, which offers two tacos, chips and a drink for $7.99. While menu prices vary, Wright said it’s very possible to purchase a meal for $9 to $11. He said business at most locations generally has been split fairly evenly between lunch and dinner.
“We also have the desire to make it feel more like a mom and pop, rather than a chain,” Wright said. “We want people to feel a connection with the community when they come in.”
One of the ways that is done is with large painted murals, which are designed with local images for each Tijuana Flats location.
Offering a good value also is a priority for Tijuana Flats, Wright said.
“People are looking for that value, especially with inflation, and we make sure they’re able to get that,” he said. “You never get a second change to make a first impression.”
Wright borrowed money from his father in 1995 to open his first Tijuana Flats in Winter Park, Florida. In 1999, Wright’s success caught the eye of Camp Fitch of the restaurant industry, who left retirement to become partner and chairman of Tijuana Flats. Wright’s father, Chester Wheeler, soon after left a 30-year career at a Fortune 500 company to become chief financial officer of Tijuana Flats.
Since its inception, Tijuana Flats has given back to the community. And in January 2007, the business created the Just in Queso Foundation to give back more and has raised more than $4 million. In addition, employees have donated many hours to help those in need.
Business hours for the Oakbrook Terrace Tijuana Flats are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Chuck Fieldman is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.