Becoming a successful Mexican restaurant chain in Texas is no small feat with competition on every corner. But Houston-based Berryhill Baja Grill has a unique story and a first-class menu that has helped this restaurant chain and its Baja-style, south-of-the-border menu become a local tradition. Recently, the chain has gone international and is drumming up excitement in neighboring states.
The Berryhill Baja Grill story began in 1928 with Walter Berryhill and his homemade tamales, which were sold from a pushcart in River Oaks before he retired in the 1960s. He sold his recipe and tamale cart, and eventually the first Berryhill restaurant was born in 1993. Today, the company has 15 stores and has been named “Best Mexican Restaurant in Houston” by AOL City Guide.
“Walter Berryhill’s tamales were famous in Houston, and when they opened up the original Berryhill location here in Houston in 1993 and announced that Berryhill tamales were back 30 years after Walter retired, it just took off from there,” CEO Jeff Anon says. “I was a customer and loved the concept, so I bought majority control in 1994 and complete control in 1995.”
Quality Above All
Five Berryhill Baja Grill locations are corporate-owned, while the rest are franchise operations. Most are in the Houston area, although the brand has a presence in Austin and Mexico, too. Whether a store is a corporate or franchise unit, Berryhill Baja Grill is meant to invoke a relaxed and inviting atmosphere where fresh food rules the day.
“We are 100 percent focused on food quality,” Anon says. “Everything is homemade every day: sauces, desserts, margaritas, lemonade. Everything is made from scratch and it shows in the quality of the food. The concept is five-star casual dining.
“We constantly go around to check our stores and ensure quality,” Anon continues. “It is difficult to make everything from scratch every day, as a lot of our products are produce-based. But our cooks and chefs are seasoned and have been with us for a long time. Our main supplier is Sysco, and they do a great job of making sure our quality stays consistent.”
The Berryhill Baja Grill concept can work in a variety of locations. The footprint of its stores varies from about 1,200 to 4,500 square feet. Irrespective of the location or the owner, however, the customer can tell it is a Berryhill location. Branding efforts through color scheme and the look and feel of locations is similar, and all locations employ the quick-casual concept where customers order food, get their own drink and munch on chips and salsa while they wait for their order.
Keys to Growth
Franchising is seen as a key part of Berryhill Baja Grill’s growth strategy. The company has a detailed road map to help franchise operators get the business off the ground successfully. Anon looks for experienced franchise partners who are looking to add a Mexican concept to their portfolio.
Although the company has been extremely successful in Texas, it is eager to test out its concept in other locations. Anon says the company is pursuing possibilities in North Carolina and Florida currently, and further efforts to expand are likely.
“My plan is for us to grow internally and start an aggressive franchise program,” Anon says. “I can see us in the Midwest and in places like Atlanta, Columbus, Charlotte and New York City because I think what we offer can succeed anywhere.”
Anon knows that quality and variety of food is critical to success, as well. The Berryhill tamale is a staple, and Texas Monthly has credited Berryhill with introducing the fish taco to Texas. But the company also constantly looks to change the menu.
“We’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve, trying new items to see what customers like,” Anon says. “We do have sacred cows that will never go away, but we’re always adding and subtracting to keep it fresh.”
Catering is another area of strength for Berryhill Baja Grill. The company has an extensive catering menu, and it recently invested in a food truck that can be used for catering.
“It has a full kitchen, so we can cook anything on our menu with that truck,” Anon says. “We are going to send it out to special events like sporting events and festivals, and since we do a lot of catering, this will be an add-on to that aspect of our business.”
It seems there is no end in sight for just how far the Berryhill Baja Grill concept can go. It has already come a long way from the pushcart that Walter Berryhill used to make his tamales famous. Now, Anon is focused on helping it make the next step forward.
“The big challenge will be to find right franchisees in the markets we explore,” Anon says. “They need to have a successful track record and the infrastructure in place that will allow them to take on another concept and make it work.”