Dining With Denise Neil

Founder of one of Wichita’s oldest Mexican restaurants has died at age 77

Clara and Arnoldo Fernandez dreamed of opening their own Mexican restaurant, and they did three years after their wedding. Clara, who founded Chico’s Mexican Restaurant with her husband, died earlier this month at the age of 77.
Clara and Arnoldo Fernandez dreamed of opening their own Mexican restaurant, and they did three years after their wedding. Clara, who founded Chico’s Mexican Restaurant with her husband, died earlier this month at the age of 77.

One of the founders of a longtime Wichita Mexican restaurant — known to her friends, family and customers as “grandma” — has died.

Clara Fernandez, who started Chico’s Restaurant with her husband, Arnoldo, in 1974, died on April 12 after battling heart, liver and kidney failure, said her daughter, Lupita Cordova Fernandez. She was 77.

Fernandez grew up in Wichita, her daughter said, and in the 1960s, she got a job as a waitress at Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant. That’s where she met Arnoldo, an immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, who was working as a dishwasher. They married in 1971, and they dreamed of having lots of children and opening their own Mexican restaurant.

They did both. The couple, who eventually had five children, and along with Clara’s parents, Magdalena and Francisco Rizo, they opened the first Chico’s in a tiny shingled building at the corner of Douglas and West Street just three years after they married.

chicos group.jpg
Arnoldo Fernandez, top left, and his wife, Clara, bottom right, pictured in the original Chico’s restaurant at Douglas and West along with the restaurant’s co-founders and Clara’s parents Magdalena Rizo, bottom left, and Francisco Rizo, top right. Courtesy

The couple ran the restaurant until 1976, then turned it over to a family member. In 1989, they wanted back in the restaurant business and opened another Chico’s at Kellogg and Oliver.

Both restaurants, it turned out, were built in the way of progress. In 1996, the couple’s east-side Chico’s had to go to make way for Kellogg construction. The couple decided to return to the west-side store they founded, but it was a casualty of West Street construction and closed in 2007. That same year, the family moved the restaurant to a new building at 4407 W. Maple.

Lupita took over running the restaurant in 1999, though Clara continued to work as a cashier, and her husband remained in the kitchen. Arnoldo, 72, is still the cook today, and customers recognize him as the man in the red apron who sits in the front of the restaurant during his breaks.

When Clara and Arnoldo’s 22-year-old son, Arnoldo, died in a traffic accident in 2001, Clara fell into a deep depression, Lupita said. After that, she stopped working at the restaurant. She’d still go in, but she’d mostly stay in the office, occasionally coming out to mingle with customers.

Clara’s health went into decline about three years ago, Lupita said.

Lupita said she will remember her mother as someone who was once outgoing and cheerful. Clara was also proud of a beauty pageant title she won when she was 20 — Ms. Wichita GI Forum.

gi forum.jpg
Clara Sanchez, who would eventually become Clara Fernandez, won the title Ms. Wichita GI Forum when she was 20. Courtesy

She loved to shop and play bingo, and she loved jewelry. She was known for buying too much gold jewelry so she could give it away.

“My dad was always like, ‘Are you buying gold again?’” Lupita said. “But she was caring, and she was giving to everybody. It was always Christmas to her. She didn’t care if you were related or not. She still bought you a gift.”

Clara is survived by her husband, Arnoldo and her children, Maricela Fernandez, Lupita Cordova Fernandez, Gloria Meza, and Alejandro Fernandez. She had 11 grandchildren and three great grandchildren..

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.


  Comments