Mexican Nor’easter

The Sea Tacos at Tio Juan’s Margaritas are a colorful presentation of fresh ingredients.
The Sea Tacos at Tio Juan’s Margaritas are a colorful presentation of fresh ingredients. Margaritas Mexican Restaurant

Tio Juan’s Margaritas serves fresh cuisine, authentic culture, and a polished dining experience to New England.

When most people think about opening a Mexican restaurant, the Northeastern region of the United States doesn’t normally come to mind.

The folks at Tio Juan’s Margaritas might consider that a bit shortsighted.

Although the restaurant chain is based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and all 25 of its units are in the Northeast, the intent is to transport diners south of the border.

“We want to make guests feel they are on a Mexican vacation without taking a suitcase,” says company president Hugo Marin. The food and quirky décor are influenced by the culture of Guadalajara in west central Mexico, although the company adds its own twist.

“We like to say we serve Mexican food made our way,” he says, referring to a variety of different menu items from the United States’ southern neighbor. “The inspiration comes from our trips to Mexico and the extensive research and development that we do.”

The design and layout of the restaurants don’t come from a cookie-cutter plan, either. Many of the units—where seating ranges from 200 to 300—are the result of taking over and renovating existing facilities, and the specific, colorful décor differs from location to location. The ambiance is always a reflection of authentic Mexican culture, with many elements imported and used as defining features in the restaurants. For instance, the chairs and tables are made with ceramic tile brought in from Mexico.

“The biggest part of what makes us unique is the artwork,” Marin explains. “Every piece of art is from an artist in Mexico. We sponsor those artists and bring one here twice a year.”

The result for Margaritas is that “a lot of people don’t realize we are a chain,” he notes. “They will view their restaurant as a local spot, and our managers run it that way.”

Fresh Success

Keeping the menu and each restaurant fresh may be one reason Margaritas recorded a 5 percent increase in same-store traffic last year, bucking the sluggish trend across the country that has been the norm for the full-service casual-Mexican restaurant segment.

According to market research firm NPD Group, guest counts at casual-Mexican eateries were off 2 percent for the 12 months that ended in October, as they suffered from some of the same issues the overall casual-restaurant industry faces.

“Millennials used to be the heaviest users of casual restaurants, but not now,” says NPD restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs. “The value is not there for them. They are looking for fresh ingredients—quality ingredients—and an experience to go along with that.”


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