Inside the Church of Chili’s Grill and Bar

Getty Images/fStop
Getty Images/fStop

Like most restaurant chains, there’s plenty that’s cheesy about Chili’s Grill and Bar. But there is also something special—something that converts its most devoted employees into enthusiastic, unblinking evangelists. These true believers form the Chili’s Dream Team, super-trainers who travel the world opening new outposts and transforming average civilians into acolytes of flavor and flair. Their devotion to The Sizzle is pure, and these are their secrets

The history of America is a history of expansion—mostly westward, but also outward. A swelling of cities, in the manner of waistlines subject to too much salt. Population centers press beyond their intended boundaries—their rivers and mountains and highway belts—and spill into the great in-between. And when an American city spills into the great in-between, the way it usually works is first there’s an office park, then there’s a housing tract, and eventually there’s a Chili’s.

O Chili’s, my Chili’s! Home of the Presidente Margarita, top-selling drink in the fifteen-hundred-and-ninety-six locations worldwide—each Presidente, by mandate, shaken no greater and no fewer than twenty-five times en route from bar to tabletop, in order to entice customers and activate the sour mix foam. Breeding ground of that baby back ribs guy with the really low voice, that bass guy who said Bar-buh-cue saauuuce and inspired an *NSYNC cover. And mother-kitchen to the sizzling fajita, the five-sense-appealing progenitor of “the fajita effect,” the service technique studied for the “I want what I hear!” ripple it initiates in starving dining rooms.

That strange, salty, satisfactory place: It makes a claim on our culture—in cities small and large, but especially those -urbs in-between—that no other American restaurant chain does. It serves as this comforting beacon of exactly-good-enough, shining softly at the edges of our highways like nightlights plugged into asphalt. It is my Chili’s and it is your Chili’s. But more than anyone’s—and this is the point of this whole thing you’re getting into—it is their Chili’s. Chili’s belongs to them.

Them—they are the Dream Team. They are the best of the best—the Chili’s super-trainers. In order to keep values and flavors consistent across the ever-expanding Chili’s universe, each new opening calls upon a select group of stand-out vets from all corners of the country to whip the newly-hired “team members” into service shape. The super-trainers school them in techniques, in standards, but most essentially in spirit. These super-trainers are the SEALs of the Fresh Mex fast-casual game and they are also its sages.

Here on this Monday in October, in Holly Springs, North Carolina, they are assembled around the recruits in a lasso, black and white and red Chili’s-issue sweat-wicking golf shirts tucked into jeans. They are some tall and some short; there is an over-average number of goatees. The recruits sit at Table 41—the long table reserved for rowdy office parties—and they await their first call to attention. It’s like the scenes at the beginning of boot camp, in Stripes or A Few Good Men. And like so many of those movies, this one begins with a report from the ranking officer, a call that requires a response.

“A-T-L,” the general manager says.

“A-T-L…” the super-trainers join.

“A-T-L…” the new team members now, tentatively.

“A-T-L!” building tempo.

“A-T-L! A-T-L! A-T-L!”

We are not in Atlanta. We are in a land of chanted acronyms. I eventually learn that A-T-L means “Above The Line”—a service distinction, like a soldier’s silver star, presented at the beginning of staff meetings—but in the moment all I think is: It has begun.

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Daniel Riley