While remembered fondly by Tristate fast food aficionados, the original Zantigo fast-food chain began in Minneapolis, Minnesota as Zapata in 1969. Marno McDermott, the man who started it all, would go o to found another popular, but now defunct, restaurant chain, Chi-Chi’s. There were over a dozen Zantigos in the Tristate.
In 1974, McDermott sold the Zapata chain to then KFC owners Heublein. Though Heublein was headquartered in Connecticut, restaurant operations, including Zapata, were conducted from Louisville’s KFC offices. In 1976, Zapata became Zantigo, and it was at about this time the chain came to the Tristate.
Zantigo differed from its main competitor, Taco Bell, in that it stressed freshness. The public responded, and in most markets where the two had restaurants, Zantigo usually performed better. The signature item on the Zantigo menu was the chilito, which helped propel the chain’s popularity.
In 1980, with Taco Bell seemingly on the ropes in some markets, KFC oddly decided to concentrate on chicken and dialed back expansion plans for Zantigo. In 1986, KFC was acquired by PepsiCo., owners of Taco Bell. With that chain already a nationwide fixture, all Zantigo restaurants, mostly confined to the Midwest, were closed or converted to Taco Bell locations by 1987. Taco Bell adopted the chilito in the process but later changed the name to the chili cheese burrito. Chilto, in some regions, is Spanish slang for, er, uh, well, it’s slang for something, trust us. And even if it doesn’t mean that, the Internet thinks it does.
Strangely, the chili cheese burrito is no longer on the Taco Bell menu, at least not officially. With some digging, it can be found on their website. However, word on the street, and by the street we mean the information superhighway, you can ask for one, but only about 10 percent of Taco Bell locations will honor the request.
The ghosts of old Zantigo restaurants can still be seen in the Tristate. The Taco Bell in the 5500 block of Colerain Avenue remains as the only surviving converted Zantigo. The old Zantigo/Taco Bell on Glenway is now an Indian restaurant, while the one in Florence is Mad Mike’s hamburger joint. In Hamilton one sits abandoned.
A former Taco Bell/Zantigo in Hamilton.
Pepsi got out of the fast food business in 1997, spinning off KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut into a corporation that is today known as Yum! Brands. Since they abandoned the name, a former Zantigo manager has opened 4 restaurants in the Twin Cities. Apparently, they're not scared of slang or the Internet, as their menu proudly features the chilito.
This old Zantigo became a Taco Bell and has been since turned back into a Zantigo.
The newest location is in St. Paul and occupies an original Zantigo building. It had been converted into a Taco Bell back in the late ‘80s before closing around 2013. Zantigo re-opened it in 2018. The company’s slogan from back in the day rings true after all--- “you’ll be back amigo.”