Rick Bayless’ Frontera Restaurants is one of the smaller MCOs in this year’s Power 20—nine concepts comprising 14 locations, mostly in Bayless’ home base of Chicago. But his impact on the Mexican segment is vast. Of his flagship concept Frontera Grill that debuted in 1987, Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel said “it’s impossible to overstate this restaurant’s importance to Chicago,” crediting it with introducing the city to regional, authentic Mexico fare at a time when Tex-Mex joints reigned supreme.
With one successful independent under his belt, Bayless continued opening new Mexican concepts—from fast-casual airport restaurants to fine-dining concepts and recently a brewery. Even with a largely local focus, he’s still managed to turn Frontera into a nationally recognized name, through cookbooks and a lucrative CPG product line, which ConAgra Foods bought last year for nearly $109 million. Along the way, Bayless’ food continues to impress critics and diners, with Vettel remarking in a review of Frontera’s latest concept, Baja-inspired restaurant Lena Brava, that “every time I visit a Rick Bayless restaurant, I learn something.”
Bayless also isn’t afraid to support his staff, even it means getting political. He was one of several high-profile operators to participate in A Day Without Immigrants, closing four of his Chicago concepts (and donating a portion of the profits from the other two restaurants to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights) on Feb. 16. In a post titled “A Message of Strength & Solidarity” on his company website, Bayless says he let his staff vote on the decision to close that day, and that his restaurants have “always … welcomed, respected and promoted our immigrant staff, friends and restaurant family.”
“[Mexican fare] doesn’t come from a shallow understanding; it comes from a deep understanding. I’ve done everything I can to make it my own.” —Rick Bayless, to NPR in May
Concepts: Cerveceria Cruz Blanca, Fonda Frontera, Frontera Cocina, Frontera Fresco, Frontera Grill, Lena Brava, Topolobampo, Tortas Frontera, Xoco