The proliferation of Chinese buffets in the 1980s was something the three founders didn’t want to battle, so they switched their focus to the development of Abuelo’s. “The founders had done a fair amount of traveling in central and coastal Mexico and fell in love with the food and architecture,” Lin says. “They thought bringing it to the U.S. would be interesting.”
They started slowly, opening the first Abuelo’s in Amarillo, Texas, in 1989. Business at that location was “decent,” Lin says, but it was opening the second restaurant that proved how lucrative the concept could be. By the end of the 1990s there were 10 Abuelo’s across Texas and Oklahoma.
Lin, who is Young’s nephew, left a job at Merrill Lynch and joined the company in 2002, when his uncle asked him to come help grow the business. By the end of 2006, the chain had reached 37 locations.
“When they were traveling through Mexico for inspiration what they enjoyed was the graciousness of real restaurants,” Lin says. “Not the typical border town type of Tex-Mex places where the interior was almost purposely grungy in a fun, casual way. They saw the opportunity to do something where guests could experience what they called real Mexico, and that meant great service and a great variety of food.”
Through that wide variety of food, Abuelo’s can capture different dining occasions: Guests may order an Enchilada Lunch for less than $8, or a hearty dinner entrée like the Pescado Guerrero (grilled sea bass topped with shrimp, sea scallops, mushrooms, spinach, roasted poblano peppers, and avocado, in a white wine sauce) for about $20.
Whether it’s traditional Tex-Mex, tapas, soup, salad, or a signature dish, everything on the Abuelo’s menu is made from scratch using executive chef Luis Sanchez’s family recipes. Lin says Chef Sanchez has been with the brand since the beginning. All sauces and salsas are made fresh from scratch twice a day—before lunch and before dinner.
“A good percentage of our sales are fajitas and enchiladas, or what I call the comfort food of Mexico,” Lin says. “But then if you look in the specialty section of the menu, there are more continental items that you’d find in a really nice upscale restaurant in Mexico.”