Peoria Journal Star Article: Why Carlos O'Kelly's Closed in Peoria

On Saturday March 29th a little opinion piece I wrote got printed in the Peoria Journal Star. My original version was decently longer, so I thought I would put it up.  You can view the online version of that article here:

In the Spotlight: Will take local and unique over corporate and generic any day

And here's the full version:

When I was young my family went to Chi-Chi's restaurant for our Mexican food fix. But then they closed.

A little later a Carlos O'Kelly's opened up in town so we went there.

But after a few years a number of locally owned Mexican restaurants, apparently owned by Mexican-Americans themselves (or perhaps better put as “Americans of Mexican descent”), began opening up and the benefits were immediately apparent. For one the food was better. I guess more "authentic" would be the word, but as a white Midwesterner I don't exactly know what authentic Mexican food is or what differentiates Tex-Mex from Mexican. But the food also tasted much fresher and thus one could only assume was healthier. Added to this the service was faster, the prices cheaper, and the overall dining experience more personal as opposed to a perpetually rotating door of local teenagers and transferred managers. These restaurants would include but are not limited to Fiesta Ranchera in East Peoria (which is now closed), Sol Azteca in Washington (which is now Los Tapatios), both Jalepenos in Peoria, and Good Tequilas out by Grand Prairie. Some of the newer restaurants worth noting are Los Jimadores on University in Peoria, El Nopal on Prospect (which I believe has now closed), Mi Familia on Wisconsin, and the wonderful Panaderia Ortiz Bakery on Monroe.

With all the new (and better) restaurants in town why in the world would we continue to go to Carlos O'Kelly's? That is, hasn't Carlos O'Kelly's been rendered basically irrelevant? I remember thinking "It's only a matter of time before Carlos O'Kelly's closes." But they didn't. They kept going for over a decade until a couple of weeks ago, when the Peoria franchise closed its doors, along with other locations across Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri (here's the Peoria Journal Star article). Company officials claim they are in the process of re-positioning the company having had more success operating out West. Sure. Whatever. Do what you like.

Now, I am not an economist and have no eagle eyed view over why there was such an influx of locally owned Mexican restaurants in my area a decade or so ago, how that relates to a rising population of Hispanic/Latino people into my city, and nor do I know if other similarly sized Midwestern cities have seen similar growth in this area of the restaurant market, but to me it is clear why Carlos O'Kelly's had to retreat from our region: someone else was offering a better and more trusted product. 

What is most interesting to me is Carlos O’Kelly’s was not forced to close as a result of a large restaurant management company opening yet another chain restaurant, but from numerous individuals and small businesses all separately capitalizing on Mid-America's growing love of Mexican food.  In an era when chain restaurants have continued to grow (but now seem to be leveling off) in order to give Americans familiar and guaranteed dining experiences by way of streamlined menus and faux-nostalgia layouts — think the pre-fab decor of Cracker Barrel or Applebee’s — I am encouraged that unique and locally owned restaurants are winning out over franchises for the simple reasons of cheaper, better, faster, and more personal as mentioned above. Sure, most of the Peoria area Mexican restaurants have the typical Mexican-themed decor (think bright multi-colored walls, Aztec myth or desert art, sombreros, the lined serape blankets, with the everpresent mariachi band music playing overhead) and sure this is probably a mixture of marketing and sincere cultural diplomacy on their part, but I would much rather be marketed to by someone who "owns" the culture they are marketing and who lives in my city while doing so rather than the assembly line layout of a corporate designer. To be clear, I am not merely in support of locally owned restaurants because I want to see our local economy thrive (although there are good reasons for that), but instead I truly believe locally owned restaurants present a better all-around dining experience for the customer. 

Perhaps in this coming decade, if my fellow Peorians and Midwesterners can make similar dining choices across the spectrum, we might see Red Lobster (seafood), Olive Garden (Italian), and Applebees (family) et al close right along with Carlos O'Kelly's, not because we hate these other restaurants but because so many better options have arisen to take their place. So the ball is entirely in the court of local restaurateurs: you simply need to offer us better food, a better atmosphere, with better service, and all at better prices. I am not the one to have the imagination to see something like this come into being (not being a professional cook or restaurant owner), but I am highly curious to see if it could be done, in my hometown and throughout America.

For reference, here is a Google map of the numerous Peoria area and (assumedly) locally owned Mexican restaurants (that is, feel free to ignore the chains/franchises):

Map of Peoria area Mexican Restaurants (please zoom out to see more rural/smalltown offerings)

1 comment:

Jake T said...

Well said. As a transplant to central IL, I've always found Carlos O'Kellys to be incomprehensible.