The Fajita Effect
How the sound of a sizzle made the world crave Chili’s
As of 2013, at fifteen hundred locations across every state, thirty-three countries, and two territories worldwide, Chili’s sells 60.4 million pounds of fajita meat per year, “four times the weight of an average U.S. military submarine,” according to Brinker International, Chili’s parent company. In this chapter, I’ll make the case that no ingredient was more important than sound in making Chili’s synonymous with sizzling fajitas.
First off, Chili’s didn’t invent fajitas. Far from it. That credit would more likely go to Juan Antonio “Sonny” Falcon, who named the belt of meat that surrounds the midsection of a cow. He called it the faja, Spanish for “belt” or “sash.” It was mostly considered trimmings. But Sonny, whose family owned a meat market, came up with a way to season and grill those tough cuts so they’d be tender and tasty. In 1969, at the Dieciséis de Septiembre celebration in Kyle, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, he opened his first booth to the public. At a time when most catered events served food at a counter and put the cooks in back, mostly out of sight, “I made it a point to set my grill right up front,” Sonny says. “And they could see exactly what I was doing.” He served his meat on flour tortillas — no accouterments, hot sauce optional. He called his simple dish fajitas. They were a huge hit wherever he went. A local paper dubbed him the Fajita King. But soon restaurants caught on to his sizzling-steak concept and brought it indoors.
Chili’s wasn’t the first restaurant to adapt Falcon’s dish either. In the 1980s, a few restaurants in Texas were gaining a reputation for fajitas served on a sizzling platter. The Round Up in Pharr, Texas, comes up in fajita lore. So does On the Border in Dallas. The restaurant at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Austin, Texas, is most often mentioned as a pioneer in sizzling-fajita history. George Weidmann, the hotel’s German-born executive chef, debuted a wildly popular gourmet version of sizzling fajitas in 1982 at the hotel’s restaurant, La Vista. The spot overlooked Town Lake and had a flowing creek, called Branchwater, running through the middle of its bar, where patrons sampled experimental Southwest-themed spicy martinis and Mexican margaritas. At the restaurant’s peak, La Vista’s 182-seat dining room served a thousand to twelve hundred customers a night. By 1984, Weidmann and La Vista produced more than thirteen thousand orders of fajitas a month — they made up 80 percent of all dishes served at the restaurant. Weidmann did a fancier version of the fajitas you probably know today. It featured a tender, prime cut of beef, seasoned with his own blend of herbs and spices, and it was served with flour tortillas plus peppers, onions, guacamole, and the house salsa, all neatly arranged on a white-hot platter that sizzled and smoked as it passed by guests.
“You could hear the sizzle, and the smell permeated the atrium dining room,” says Lance Stumpf, who succeeded Weidmann (who died in 2001) as La Vista’s executive chef and is now general manager of the Austin Hyatt. “People recognized it as ‘Ooh! Something hot is coming up behind me!’ ”
La Vista was one of the first places to stumble upon sound in the fajita recipe. Weidmann, however, was convinced that it was his unique choice of spices that made the dish a success. That became a roadblock when Hyatt tried to replicate the dish at other restaurants in the hotel chain — they couldn’t do Weidmann’s spice blend in bulk. That, Stumpf says, is why sizzling fajitas never became Hyatt’s signature dish. But that’s the chef in him talking. What makes more sense is that Weidmann put the emphasis on the wrong ingredient.
You don’t remember Chili’s fajitas because of their spice blend or cut of beef — Chili’s restaurants sell plenty of chicken and vegetarian fajitas too. In 1984, as the Hyatt struggled to modify its fajitas to fit in other hotel restaurants, Chili’s rolled out its version in twenty-three of its locations, with great success. People lined up around the block waiting to get a table. Long before the term became popular, Chili’s sizzling fajitas went viral. Cooks called it the “fajita effect”: When the first order of the night came into the kitchen, the cooks fired up several skillets and started prepping ingredients for the bunch of orders that always came soon after. The boom moment of the first sizzle of the night always kicked off a multisensory chain reaction that made the whole dining room want the dish. In the wake of the massive success of its sizzling fajitas debut, Chili’s printed up T-shirts with the message I survived the Summer of Fajita Madness!
The restaurant chain didn’t do fajitas first or best, but it did them loudest. It even put the sizzling sound in its first TV ad. While other restaurants tried to make fajitas that tasted better or looked fancier than the competition’s, Chili’s kept the recipe simple and relied primarily on the sizzle to not only turn heads but also trigger a barrage of senses: you hear them, then you notice the smoke and smell the aroma. Add up all of that, and you don’t just taste or see a neat-looking dish with Chili’s sizzling fajitas. You experience it.
No other sensory input is more efficient than sound in helping craft these kinds of experiences. The right sound at the right time has the power to tell a rich story. Without your even realizing it, sound triggers memories and emotions. It makes you feel something instantly. When that happens, the results are bigger than sales numbers or effective marketing.
That’s when you get a boom moment. Boom moments happen when a sound triggers this kind of multisensory experience — a complex mix of memories and expectations wrapped in feelings that aren’t immediately explained by the sound itself. If I played you the sound of sizzling fajitas, then told you it wasn’t, in fact, meat hitting a white-hot skillet but rather a person burning his or her hand on a hot stove, or water from a firefighter’s hose landing on the flaming roof of a home, you would react with a completely different set of feelings. The sizzle alone isn’t what’s so distinct; it’s the power of that sound to surprise and delight your ear in an unexpected setting, then usher you through the rest of the sensory experience that naturally follows. This chapter will show you how Chili’s and others put the powerful emotional impact of sound to work to create experiences you remember. It’s about discovering which sounds at which instants make for boom moments. You’ll start to see how to spot them when companies or individuals pull them off effectively, and you’ll begin to understand how to create them for yourself or your company. You’ll also see how cultural milestones can become boom moments, points at which something embeds itself in our collective consciousness, often with a common set of feelings or experiences that help us form bonds with the experience and with one another.
Excerpt from The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy by Joel Beckerman with Tyler Gray, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 21, 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Man Made Music, Inc. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer and producer for television. He is the founder of Man Made Music, a company specializing in sonic branding. Fast Company named him one of their “Most Creative People in Business” and Man Made Music one of their “Most Innovative Companies” in music. He has created original scores for more than 50 television programs, won ASCAP’s “Most Performed” theme award for the past eight years, and developed signature sonic branding programs for global giants such as Disney, AT&T, and Southwest Airlines. Beckerman has worked with John Legend, will.i.am, Moby, OK Go, Morgan Freeman, and the composer John Williams. He lives in New Providence, New Jersey.
Tyler Gray is an editorial director for Edelman in the New York City office. He was recently editorial director for Fast Company and is the author ofThe Hit Charade.