As Chandler’s oldest family-owned business, Serrano’s is older than the city itself.
The city did not officially incorporate as a municipality until 1920. By then, Albert Serrano and his brother Luis had already been running their dry goods store for nearly a year.
And they kept running and expanding their business for the next few decades – paving the way for their descendants to carry on the family name into the 21st century.
While the first 60 years of the business was devoted to clothing and other dry goods, Ernie and Eva Serrano 40 years ago confronted a life-or-death business decision.
And Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants was born.
September marks kind of two anniversaries for the six of Ernie and Eva Serrano’s eight children who run the five restaurants – the original one in Chandler as well as two in Mesa and one each in Tempe and Queen Creek.
Not only are the Serrano siblings celebrating 40 years in the restaurant business serving authentic Mexican cuisine made from recipes handed down by their parents and grandparents. They also are marking 100 years as an enterprise, becoming Chandler’s oldest continuing family-owned business.
“We’re very blessed to have been in business for 100 years,” said Ric Serrano, president and CEO of Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants, which employ about 200 employees at the five locations.
Ernie’s father, Albert, had passed on his department stores down to his sons in 1959 after four decades in business.
Albert and Luis Serrano first moved to Chandler from Tucson in 1919 and opened the Popular Store with $10,000 worth of inventory. With the help of their brothers, they opened more locations in Casa Grande, Gilbert, and Mesa and sold goods to the region’s many farm families.
“There were times when the crops might not have been good and so credit was extended to the farmers who might have had a bad year and sometimes they would wait up to a year to get paid,” Ernie Serrano Jr. said in an oral history that was recorded in 2005.
By the 1970s, indoor malls started sprouting up around the Valley and the Serranos found it difficult to compete. As their stores started to close, the family thought they could try selling a different type of service.
Mealtime had always been important in the Serrano home, Ric said. He and his seven siblings would spend hours around the dinner table, laughing and joking with each other.
If they could replicate that family atmosphere in a business setting, then maybe this new venture could work.
So, the Serranos took a chance by opening a restaurant, despite not having any experience in the food industry.
But Eva knew how to cook and Ernie knew how to manage the books. In addition, the Serranos were already known in the community and had developed loyal customers through their department stores.
“The same people that they were selling jeans and shirts and ties and shoes to, came to them to try out their Mexican food,” Ric Serrano said.
They officially opened La Casa Serrano in December 1979.
Ric said his parents worked long hours in the beginning – sometimes not closing until 1 a.m. and returning to open again at 8 a.m.
When the Serranos decided to open a second location in Tempe, Ric decided to forgo his golfing career and help his parents manage the new restaurant.
The Tempe restaurant experimented by offering a special bean dip alongside the standard chips and salsa. It was a decision that turned out to be a successful one.
“It was such a hit that it became something that we’re known for and people remember us for the bean dip,” Ric Serrano said.
More restaurants would follow, but not all would endure. The family decided to close its breakfast eatery, Brunchies, in 2016 after several years of operation.
Control over the business formally changed hands after Ernie Serrano passed away in 2009 at the age of 79. His wife died in 2017.
Ric said he thinks his parents would be proud to so many of their children getting along and running the business together. But his father was always the most ambitious member of the family and liked taking risks.
“I think that if he was still around, maybe we’d have more restaurants,” Ric said. “He liked a good deal.”
The Serranos continue to adapt and change to the trends of the restaurant industry. Food can be ordered and delivered through Uber, the restaurants offer catering services, and the Serrano family salsa can be bought online.
The times have changed, but Ric Serrano said the business is still rooted in three words: faith, family, and food.
They made the uncommon decision in 2012 to close all its locations on Sunday – one of their busiest days – in order to give employees a break on the weekend.
More recently, the restaurants have begun holding a device-free night on Thursdays, where patrons are encouraged to put down their phones and start a conversation.
To further encourage talking, they leave a booklet of conversation starters at every table.
“People are looking for a reason to put them down,” Ric said. “Everyone just needs a little encouragement to set them down for a little bit.”
In honor of the centennial, the Serranos will be selling a sampler special for $10 throughout September. The dish includes green and red chili beef, shredded chicken, machaca, tortilla, rice, and beans.
Throughout the month, all five Serrano’s restaurants are accepting donations of children’s books and teddy bears to benefit the W. Steven Martin 911 Toy Drive.
Over 34 years, the drive has generated six million gifts which first responders have donated to more than one million needy kids.
For every donation made at one of its restaurants, Serranos will give the customer a voucher for a scoop of free fried ice cream at any Serrano’s location.
On Sept. 19, the Chandler Serrano’s at location 141. S. Arizona Ave. will host a fiesta celebration with raffle prizes and activities for children. At that celebration, Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke and several other East Valley officials will compete at 7 p.m. in a taco-eating contest for charity.
Specials the week of Sept, 16 are: Sept. 16, $1 margaritas; Sept. 17, $1 tacos; Sept. 18, $1 Hump Day Heavenly Bites; Sept. 19, $1 shredded beef or chicken taco, rice and beans entrée; Sept. 20, $1 fried ice cream; Sept. 21, $1 draft Mexican beer.