As Americans, we have a few inalienable rights.
Among them are life, liberty – and free chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants.
In Wichita, a few restaurants – driven by food costs or an unwavering commitment to quality – have started charging a nominal fee for chips and salsa.
Some are getting away with it. Others have experienced full-on diner revolt and have backed down.
One restaurateur who is pulling it off is Michael Farha, who in February 2015 opened the trendy and popular District Taqueria at 917 E. Douglas.
The restaurant serves upscale tacos, but if customers want to snack on chips and salsa while they wait, they have to pay $3.50.
Farha said that before opening, he considered the question for quite a while. He understood Wichita diners expect their chips and salsa to be free, and he expected some resistance.
But he was committed to making a homemade salsa with more high-end, costly ingredients such as jalapeno and habanero peppers, tomatillos, cilantro, garlic and onion.
His customers are adjusting.
“Our costs are considerably higher than an average Mexican restaurant when it comes to salsa,” he said. “I knew there would be pushback on it, but I really believed by offering a quality item made from scratch daily, the majority of people would accept our different approach.”
At least two Mexican restaurants that opened in Wichita this year also decided to charge for chips and salsa. One was Los Compadres, which opened in June at 3302 W. Central and charges $2.88.
The other was Casa Del Charro, which opened in October in the former Taqueria El Paisa space at 2227 N. Arkansas.
Beverly Salas, whose family owns the restaurant on Arkansas, said she faced the same issue Farha faced. Her mother makes the restaurant’s salsa, which requires lots of fresh, pricey produce. Casa Del Charro also serves a higher-end, more expensive tortilla chip, she said. The family didn’t want to serve an inferior salsa but also wasn’t sure it could absorb the extra cost.
When the restaurant first opened, the family was charging for chips and salsa. But they got a clear message that customers didn’t like it, and recently they changed the policy.
Now, the first two baskets of chips and salsa are free. A third refill is $1.50.
“It is expensive,” Salas said. “People don’t realize that.”
Jesse Soria, who has owned Cholita’s at 8987 W. Central for 30 years, clearly remembers when he tried to charge for chips and salsa.
At the time, tomato prices were soaring.
“We thought, ‘Let’s pass the cost on,’ ” he said. “And oh, my goodness.”
Customers were outraged. Some threatened to never return. Soria stopped charging for chips and salsa after only two days.
Eventually, Soria said, he raised prices slightly to help cover the chips and salsa costs. He said his customers were fine with an overall price increase as long as they didn’t see “chips and salsa” listed on their bills.
“It’s frustrating, because people don’t stop and think,” he said. “We have to pay for the tortillas to make the chips and pay for the tomatoes for the salsa and pay for the labor to make everything. But it’s very true. People are used to getting free chips and salsa.”