DALLAS — In 2021, a burger restaurant with a distinctive chili pepper for a logo raked in more than $3.5 billion in sales.
Nearly 50 years ago, they were just shooting for $100 per day.
Chili's has come a long way since it opened on Greenville Avenue in Dallas in 1975.
Yes, the expansive 1,600-location restaurant, one of the largest chains in the country, started here in Dallas, in an old converted post office on Greenville at Meadow Road. And when the Chili's founder recently looked back on the restaurant's widespread growth and popularity, he had one main takeaway.
"It proved it was a valid concept," Larry Lavine said.
Lavine's pragmatic assessment of the Chili's success story was in step with how their story started, in 1975, when Lavine founded the restaurant with Malloy Buckner and John Foshee.
They picked the name Chili's because they had chili on the menu, and they figured "it was something people would talk about," Lavine said.
"People don't talk about spaghetti and meatballs," Lavine said.
Lavine had worked in clubs and band booking, and then ran a steak-and-seafood restaurant with Buckner.
Today, their idea for a new concept might seem straightforward: A casual dining spot with a family-friendly menu that also offers drinks. Find a busy corner in most cities in America and you'll see three of them, if not more.
But in the 1970s, building a Chili's experience was akin to stepping out on a limb.
"We were one of the first early casual dining restaurants," Lavine said.
The dining scene was different, he explained. There were nice restaurants, like steakhouses, and there were cafes. Fast food was coming around, too. What was lacking was an in-between option.
Something nice, but not too expensive. Somewhere you could grab a burger and a drink, without breaking the bank.
Another wrinkle in the dining scene at the time was Texas law, which barred the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants. If you wanted to drink liquor, it had to happen at a "private club," and you had to have a card Texans in 1968 voted in favor of "liquor-by-the-drink," allowing drink sales in restaurants beginning in 1971.
Lavine, Buckner and Foshee didn't start Chili's as a result of the liquor-by-the-drink; the law had already been in place for a few years. But given the timing, they had another element to add to their menu.
So they asked themselves: What would make the most sense?
If someone dropped in for a post-work burger, would they wash it down with a scotch and water? Probably not.
Thankfully, Dallas, at that time, had another liquor drink making the rounds: The frozen margarita, founded at Mariano's Hacienda restaurant in 1971.
"It's Dallas, Texas," the Chili's founders figured, as Lavine recalled. "They love frozen margaritas."
And thus, a pillar of the Chili's menu was born.
The chain that would become famous for baby back ribs kept it simple in the beginning: Chili, burgers, fries, and tacos. Seventy-five-cent beers. Dollar-fifty margaritas. They later added fajitas and nachos, adding to the Mexican flair.
And it was the little things that made the first Chili's tick, Lavine said; they'd lower the lights at night and play popular music. Their first location was an old post office that had been converted to a darkened bar. The Chili's founders revamped it with a coat of fresh green paint.
"Our challenge was to make it fun," Lavine said.
The early goal of Chili's was $100 per day. Then a Dallas Times-Herald food writer stopped by and praised the restaurant in the newspaper, Lavine said. He'd stop by again. And again, more praise in the paper would follow.
"And the sales would just go up and up," Lavine said.
Lavine knew they had something a few months into the restaurant's opening. He was sitting in his office and it was hot, so he opened the door. Outside, he heard commotion. A line was wrapped around the building, as customers waited to get inside.
When the lines started, Lavine said, they never stopped.
Chili's expanded from one location in Dallas to another in Houston. Soon, it was a regional chain.
The original Chili's location on Greenville in Meadow eventually closed and about a decade ago was replaced by a 7-Eleven, another Dallas-founded company.
By then, Chili's was already worldwide.
In the early 1980s, the company was purchased by the restaurant group Brinker International. Lavine, who still lives in North Texas, left the company around the same time, but he remained a fan.
He recently stopped by a Chili's and settled in for a meal. Like he did in 1975, he kept it simple.
"I had a burger," Lavine said, "which was still very good. They're doing a good job with their burgers."