Mexican standoff: 3 new restaurants open on same block in Chattanooga

Mexican standoff: 3 new restaurants open on same block in Chattanooga

April 23rd, 2014 by Alex Green in Business Around the Region

MEXICAN FLAIR TO DOWNTOWN

• Chuy's Mexican Restaurant, 809 Market St.

• El Macho Taco, 811 Market St

• Taqueria Jalisco, opening second location in Miller Plaza

Chuy Esquivel works to get his restaurant at 809 Market St. open by May 1. It will be called Chuy's Mexican Restaurant.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Three vacant restaurant spots in the 800 block of Market Street have been snatched up.

And all by Mexican restaurants - three separate Mexican restaurants that didn't know about the others until now.

"I was a little worried," said Chuy Esquivel, when he learned of the other two Mexican restaurants opening near his store. Esquivel is the entrepreneur opening Chuy's Mexican Restaurant in the former Blacksmith's building at 809 Market St.

Chuy's is an independent operation, not part of the Chuy's Tex Mex Restaurant franchise.

To Chuy's immediate south, at 811 Market St., is El Macho Taco, a Middle Tennessee-based franchise whose Chattanooga store opened nearly two weeks ago, even as a U-Haul truck with Chuy's furnishings sat outside the front door.

"I assumed the people next to us would have known about us," said Ashley Garcia, manager at El Macho Taco.

There are about 15 El Macho Taco locations around the state, Garcia said. And the brand came to Chattanooga after a "kind of spur of the moment" decision because of the city's good vibe and because El Macho Taco features a Southern California-style Mexican menu, unlike many in the area.

But when the owners of El Macho Taco decided to expand into the Scenic City, they, like Esquivel, did not know the store would be surrounded by other brand-new Mexican restaurants.

"It was kind of weird," said Garcia. "We found out, and we were like, 'Whoa.'"

Then there's Taqueria Jalisco, a Mexican food mainstay on Chattanooga's southside which announced in February a second location to be installed at Miller Plaza - which occupies 850 Market St.

And it's the same story for them.

"No, we didn't know that any of that was going on," said Jorge Parra, manager of the Taqueria.

Amanda Niel wonders how this happened.

"I thought it was strange, as a business person," she said.

Niel and her husband operate Easy Bistro and Bar, a French restaurant downtown. Niel is also leading the effort to bring back a Chattanooga restaurant association.

She's happy to see three new Mexican restaurants opening here and thinks it's a testament to Chattanooga's maturing palate and appreciation for genuine foreign dishes.

"I think it's encouraging, because people now, more than ever, are willing to try different types of cuisine," she said. "I think it's awesome."

But Niel worries that Chuy's, El Macho Taco and Taqueria Jalisco being in such close proximity to one another will make things tougher on all three.

Brooke Larm, left, and her daughter, Glory, enter El Macho Taco on Tuesday for lunch at 811 Market St. Next door, to the right, at 809 Market St., Chuy Esquivel works to open his version of Mexican fare called Chuy's Mexican Restaurant, by May 1.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

"It kind of gives them a disadvantage from the start," she said. "I just don't understand how all of them ended up in the same block."

It's not a fear shared by the restaurateurs themselves.

Esquivel thinks his prices, sit-down atmosphere and drink scene will keep him in business.

"I don't think anybody is going to beat us," he said. "It's just totally different from everything else that's down here."

Meanwhile Garcia thinks the California, fresh flair of El Macho Taco will win over diners. And her store was the first of all three to open.

"It's going really well," she said.

And about the others, "We don't feel like it's going to be that big of a deal."

Parra has similar feelings.

"I think we have a pretty good following," he said. "And I feel like there's enough business downtown to go around for everyone."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.