Dining With Denise Neil

Customer starts campaign to save 45-year-old Wichita restaurant in danger of closing

Lupita Cordova Fernandez was not raised to ask for handouts, she said, so when a customer asked recently if she could start a GoFundMe campaign to help Lupita save her family’s 45-year-old Wichita Mexican restaurant, Chico’s Restaurant at 4407 W. Maple, she was reluctant.

“I’ve never done one of those, and I don’t expect handouts,” said Lupita, who now runs the restaurant her parents helped start in 1974. “But I just don’t know what to do.”

Lupita said that her family’s restaurant, which sits in a $1.2 million building they erected in 2007 after being forced out of their spot on West Street because of construction, is in danger of closing.

The family built the new building with the intention of staying close to their previous location and taking advantage of hungry shoppers at neighboring Towne West. But in the years since they opened the doors, Towne West has suffered financially and lost tenants. Traffic in the area dried up, Lupita said.

Construction on I-235 over recent years also has hurt business as people that used to seek out the restaurant gave up on fighting cones, she said.

Chico’s Mexican Restaurant has operated on Maple just west of West street since 2007. Courtesy

Lupita said she’s fallen four years and nearly $70,000 behind on property taxes, and if she doesn’t find a way to refinance the business or come up with some cash soon, she fears she will lose the building.

Even more, she fears the toll losing the business would take on her father, co-founder Arnoldo Fernandez, who just turned 73 and who lost his wife, Lupita’s mother, earlier this year.

“He was tearful,” Lupita said of a recent conversation she had with her father, who still cooks at the restaurant. “He was like, ‘I lost your mom, and now I’m going to lose this.’”

But on Wednesday, longtime customer Kay Cleverdon Scott launched the GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising $75,000.

Cleverdon Scott is the human resources director for a hydraulics company called Hyspeco Inc. in Wichita, and over the years, she’s frequently held employee meetings at Chico’s. She’s such a regular, they know her order before she sits down. (Diet Dr. Pepper, special cheese dip, chicken quesadilla.)

She knew that Lupita was having financial trouble but didn’t know the extent of it until this week, Cleverdon Scott said.

“The minute I heard what was going on, I’m like, ‘Nope. I’m going to do something. We’re going to fix this. We can fix this,’” she said.

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

Not only does she love the family who runs Chico’s and the food they make, but the business has also been a big part of the Wichita community for years, she said, and that means something. Lupita, who took over running the restaurant in 1999, would always sponsor soccer teams and adopt families in need at Christmas, Cleverdon Scott said.

They give so much, it’s their turn to receive, she said.

“Chains are one thing, but heritage and people are another,” she said. “This isn’t just a business. This is heart. These are great people.”

As of Thursday evening, the GoFundMe had raised $1,100 in 21 hours, and Cleverdon Scott says she’s confident people will step up to raise the rest. She wants to give the family a way to pay down the property taxes and pay toward the loans they still have on the business.

The first Chico’s opened in 1974 when newlyweds Arnoldo an Clara Fernandez along with Clara’s parents, Magdalena and Francisco Rizo, went in together on a tiny shingled building at the corner of Douglas and West Street. Another Chico’s opened at Kellogg and Oliver, but both got in the way of construction. The east-side store closed, and in 2007, the family was forced to give up the West Street store to make way for construction. Lupita says the family got only $15,000.

Today, Lupita says, she’s paid up on her other taxes but still has three years of payments left on two bank loans and seven left on an SBA loan.

She’s hopeful that the new owners of Towne West, Great Neck, N.Y.-based Kohan Retail Investment Group, which owns almost 30 malls nationwide, will be able to revive the mall and get some traffic back in the area.

But she has to be able to survive until then.

“I don’t want handouts,” Lupita said. “I just want to be busy like we used to.”

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.