How Bay Area based Chevys rose to fame with ‘El Machino’

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When Chevys Fresh Mex made its grand debut in Alameda in 1986, it wasn’t the fajitas that were the main draw. Neither were the stiff margaritas, nor the wacky 1980s decor. 

Instead, it was a state-of-the-art automatic contraption nicknamed “El Machino,” which cranked out fresh flour tortillas every 53 seconds. The assembly line oven was front and center at every Chevys restaurant during the better part of the 1980s through the early 2000s and it was, without a doubt, Chevys’ pride and joy. 

“When you order your sizzling fajitas, you’re going to get a piping hot, freshly made tortilla right off ‘El Machino,’” said Alan Sversky, Chevys director of research and development, in 2009. “Parents love it, kids love it, and most of all, it’s fresh.”

He wasn’t wrong either. El Machino piqued the interest of customers and eventually attracted press from major publications. Patricia Unterman, former restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and now co-owner of Hayes Street Grill, compared El Machino to “A Rube Goldberg-esque tortilla machine.” (Unterman also gave San Francisco’s Fourth Street Chevys outpost a one-star — or a “good” rating — but she was not pleased with the restaurant décor, likening it to a “liquor warehouse.”)    

The Los Angeles Times chimed in on Chevys when the Bay Area chain expanded to Southern California.

“This impressive piece of high-tech machinery produces 900 fresh, hot flour tortillas per hour. Children and adults alike delight in watching the flour balls being flattened, cooked, and sent by conveyor belt to a basket, where they are scooped up and brought to your table within three minutes,” the Times wrote in 1992.

Chevys co-founder Warren Simmons, who incidentally also developed Pier 39 in the 1970s, created Chevys Fresh Mex with his son, Scooter, in 1986. Starting off with a location in Alameda, the restaurant owners grew their chain empire to dozens of stores around the Bay Area and beyond, including four outposts in San Francisco alone.   

With El Machino taking center stage, the site across from Moscone Center singlehandedly became Chevys’ best-performing location, raking in annual sales of about $4 million, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article from 1993. In its inaugural year, Chevys made $800,000 in annual sales, a far cry from what it would later make as a chain in 1992 — a whopping $84 million.

Chevys Fresh Mex dazzled guests with an assembly line oven called "El Machino" for many decades until the chain phased them out and switched to traditional comales (seen on right) to make tortillas. 

Chevys Fresh Mex dazzled guests with an assembly line oven called “El Machino” for many decades until the chain phased them out and switched to traditional comales (seen on right) to make tortillas. 

Courtesy of Chevy’s Fresh Mex

It was the beginning of what would become an empire. The Simmons considered an initial public offering for Chevys, but instead, sold the company in 1993 to Taco Bell Corp., a former subsidiary of PepsiCo, two years after Warren Simmons retired. The deal was estimated to be more than $35 million.

“This is an even better alternative to the public market, expansion gets a little bit easier when you have the backing that Taco Bell brings,” Mike Hislop, former chairman and chief executive of Chevys, told The Chronicle. “Taco Bell and Chevys share a similar goal, we both have an interest in becoming a dominant force in sit-down dining and they share our interest in becoming the national leader in mid-scale Mexican food.”


But the good times didn’t last for El Machino or Chevys. The chain eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003. At one point, the chain had about 40 restaurants around the U.S., but that number has since dwindled to about half of that today.

Real Mex Restaurants, which owned restaurant chains El Torito, Acapulco and more, made a bid to buy Chevys in 2004 and successfully purchased it the following year. But under its ownership, many of the decades-old stores succumbed to closures. The Alameda flagship store and all four San Francisco outposts — including the Moscone Center location — all closed. Three years later, Real Mex Restaurants filed for bankruptcy too. 

Another paramount move that came out of the Real Mex Restaurants acquisition was that El Machino quietly disappeared. Things could have gone awry from there on out, but since 2018, Chevys has been under the ownership of Xperience Restaurant Group, which has helped a bit. 

Among one of Chevys' most popular dishes is their chicken flautas. 

Among one of Chevys’ most popular dishes is their chicken flautas. 

Allen Taylor

Cristhian Salazar, director of culinary at Chevys, told SFGATE that he isn’t sure when Chevys pulled the plug on the instrument that garnered so much fame, but by the time Xperience Restaurant Group took over, many “El Machinos” at Chevys were long gone. The change may have occurred under the Real Mex Restaurants ownership when, in 2017, the remaining Chevys restaurants underwent remodeling and the restaurant group dismantled the tortilla ovens in favor of comales.  

“As in legacy restaurants, this new store makes its tortillas in the front of the house using a traditional piece of equipment called a comal. The new prototype features a redesigned station for better flow and ergonomics,” Foodservice wrote of the changes made in 2017.

El Machino was at the heart of something that many, even its fans, don’t realize about Chevys: The restaurant makes all of its meals from scratch, Cristhian Salazar told SFGATE, a longstanding concept from its inception. “I think we get bundled into that era of ‘everything is already premade,’” Salazar said.

Although the physical machine is gone, a neon light that spells out “El Machino” remains at the stores as a reminder of the glory days at Chevys. And you never know what could come in the future: “We have talked about adding something similar” to El Machino, Salazar said.



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