Sunday, June 08, 2008

El Fenix restaurant chain sold to real estate developer

Nearly 90 years of family ownership of the El Fenix restaurant chain has come to an end, the family said Thursday in announcing a sale to a Dallas-based real estate developer.

Privately held El Fenix, founded in 1918 on land now part of Woodall Rodgers Freeway, has been sold to Firebird Restaurant Group LLC.

Mike Karns, president of Dallas' Karns Commercial Real Estate, said he formed Firebird to acquire the 15-unit Mexican restaurant chain. He declined to disclose terms of the purchase, but he said there are no plans to close restaurants.

The deal culminates a search that began about a year ago, when descendants of founder Miguel "Mike" Martinez – including a fifth generation of El Fenix workers – had to make a choice about the future of the iconic brand.

"Some of the people in the family had a desire to grow [the chain]," said John McBride Jr., 48, a great-grandson of Mike Martinez, "and some of the older family members, who felt they had done their time," were not as interested in expansion.

"So we were at a crossroads, and we felt this was the best time to put it in the hands of people that could grow it," he said.

The company hired Dallas-based Southwest Securities to find suitors, eventually settling on Firebird.

Mr. Karns, chairman and chief executive of Firebird, said he hopes to open a new El Fenix in the Dallas-Fort Worth area within 12 months. "We see this as a growth opportunity to expand the El Fenix brand throughout the metroplex and Texas," he said.

The Martinez family owned eight of the 15 El Fenix restaurant properties, including the popular location on McKinney Avenue near Victory Park. The other seven were leased.

The change in ownership surprised at least one diner. John Dorey, a Fort Worth retiree, said, "I thought it would be in the family forever."

At the El Fenix on McKinney Avenue, where he was eating his standard meal of bean and cheese nachos, Mr. Dorey said he plans to keep coming "as long as the food remains the same."

Consistency is the plan, Mr. Karns said. He said El Fenix will be run by Martinez family members along with new executives.

John Michael McBride Sr., a 65-year-old grandson of the founder, will stay on as a board adviser. His son, John McBride Jr., will be chief operating officer. Robert Martinez, 51, another grandson, will be vice president of finance.

And Alfred Martinez, a son of the founder who turned 84 this week will continue in his role as "ambassador," chatting with diners and troubleshooting at the McKinney Avenue restaurant.

By KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS / The Dallas Morning News