After Getting its Start in Downtown Chandler, Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants Celebrates 40 Years of Serving up Traditional Family Recipes

When restaurateurs talk about why they opened their businesses, many have a glossy story about following a passion for food or life-long dream to helm a high-profile kitchen.

But Ric Serrano, CEO of Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants, doesn’t. His explanation for the start of his family’s restaurant in 1979 is humbly honest. And refreshing.

At the time, the Serranos’ once-thriving clothing department store business was losing the battle to a new crop of malls popping up throughout the Valley. The popular family with deep Chandler roots and a strong history of community involvement looked for a new venture it could put its well-respected name on.

“It was somewhat survival. The clothing business’ days were numbered. The writing was on the wall and it wasn’t going to be long,” Ric recalls of the decision to transition into the restaurant industry.

That move would sprout a family business that thrived over decades amidst competition, changing consumer preferences and countless other factors beyond the Serranos’ control. This year, the mom-and-pop restaurant started by Ric’s parents Ernie and Eva, and which is now run by their children, celebrates its 40th anniversary.

But this uncommon feat is not the only one the family celebrates.

The family’s business lineage dates back to 1919, when Ernie’s brother Albert and his brother Luis opened a dry goods store called the Serrano Brothers Popular Store in Chandler. Over time, it evolved into the clothing store Serrano’s Department Stores.

From the Popular Store to Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants, the business’ survival under the Serrano name spans 100 years, making it the oldest family business in the city.

Both are accomplishments that the family with an impressive entrepreneurial pedigree doesn’t take for granted.

“We’re very blessed that we’ve made it this far,” Ric says. “Having 40 years in the restaurant business is an achievement in itself. It makes us very proud. It’s not easy to be an independent business, at any time.”

More than a century ago, Albert and Luis migrated from Sonora, Mexico, to Tucson. The brothers made their way north and settled in a little farming community called Chandler and opened their Popular Store. They started with $10,000 worth of inventory and sold dry goods, clothing and Boy Scouts and P.E. uniforms to a community of about 1,000, mostly comprised of farming families.

At its peak, Serrano’s Department Stores had five locations throughout the Valley. The second generation was now fully at the helm and ready to pass it on to the third.

When it was time to foray into a new industry, they relied on Eva’s culinary skills and family recipes from Ric’s grandmothers as the base for the downtown Chandler restaurant, originally named La Casa Serrano.

“My mom was an excellent cook and we had excellent recipes from both sides of the family. That’s what we started with,” Ric says.

When it opened, the menu had about 30 items plus a dozen combos. The specialty was a plate of two beef flautas served with guacamole or sour cream for $2.95. Customers could get a red or green beef enchilada for $1.95, or a tamale for $1.20.

Forty years later, there are five locations—Tempe, Mesa (two), Queen Creek and the original Chandler spot. Ernie and Eva’s eight children own Serrano’s with six—Ric; Ernie Jr.; Theresa; Stephanie; Billy; and Lorraine, the executive chef—taking active daily roles. Ernie passed away in 2009, and Eva in 2017.

Being Chandler natives and multi-generational business owners gave the Serranos the name recognition and community trust needed to make this most recent and successful business transition.

“Being in Chandler has been key to our success. A lot of our clothing business customers came here because they knew us and that’s what helped us get off the ground,” Ric says.

Staying true to delicious tradition also plays a role.

“It’s easy to jump on the newest trend and we’ve tried to hunker down on what our success has been based on and recipes from way back when,” Ric says. “We tried not to veer from what’s got us here.”

For more, visit SerranosAZ.com.

 

(Timeline)

1979

Ernie and Eva Serrano open La Casa Serrano in Chandler, the first location of what would be known as Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants.

1996

The Chandler Chamber of Commerce names Serrano’s its Small Business of the Year.

2005

Arizona State University honors Serrano’s with the Spirit of Enterprise Award.

Oct. 7, 2012

Serrano’s closes all of its restaurants so employees can be with their families. This Sunday tradition continues today.