In 1967 Frank Paul Miccolis, a first-generation Italian-American and recent transplant from Indiana, got in his car and headed north up Interstate 5 from the San Fernando Valley.
Beyond Sylmar there wasn’t much. Some farmland, some onion fields, certainly few restaurants.
But Miccolis, who had opened the successful Chi-Chi’s Pizza Panorama City just years prior, saw potential in the bucolic foothills, and had scheduled a meeting with Newhall Land and Farming to discuss bringing his business north.
“He’d seen a master plan of what (Newhall Land and Farming) was planning and said he wanted to be part of it,” said Frank’s son, and current Chi-Chi’s owner, Paul Miccolis. “And so he opened.
“There were no homes and Soledad didn’t go through. My mom thought he was crazy.”
Miccolis’ gamble, however, quickly paid off — as the second branch of his now 60-year-old pizza franchise grew into a veritable Santa Clarita staple.
Miccolis founded Chi-Chi’s in 1958 in Panorama City, hoping to bring the Italian heritage of his father’s cooking to a California audience.
The name “Chi-Chi’s,” Miccolis explained, was an homage to Frank Paul Miccolis’ father.
“His name in Italian was Francesco Paolo,” Miccolis explained. “In Italy, the nickname for Francesco is ‘Ciccio,’ and they called my grandfather ‘Ciccio.’ So my dad, when he opened the first place in 1958, named it Chi-Chi’s after his father.”
But, Miccolis qualified, “in America (my father) spelled it phonetically, ‘Chi-Chi,’ so people could pronounce it correctly.”
Equally as iconic to the franchise as the its alliterative name, said Miccolis, is the Chi-Chi’s logo.
“That logo is actually my father,” said Miccolis. “A young man had come into the restaurant one day and said ‘you need a logo,’ and he sketched that out and showed it to my dad.”
The artist worked quickly, transcribing Miccolis’ thick horned-rimmed glasses, bushy eyebrows and nonchalant countenance onto the blank page. On top, he rendered a pizza hat in the negative space.
Miccolis loved it. A with a name and logo that metonymized the family values of his restaurant, he began to expand.
From the San Fernando Valley, Miccolis opened Chi-Chi’s branches in Saugus and Simi Valley in 1967, and another in Northridge in 1973. The final Chi-Chi’s branch, and the second Santa Clarita Valley location, opened in 2000.
Miccolis’ recipe for sustaining multiple branches for 60-years, he says, is simple.
“(Chi-Chi’s) is homegrown, we still do it old school,” he said. “Handmade dough, we make the dough at the location everyday, and we make all the sauces there everyday.”
“One of the best movers out at Saugus is the fried chicken that nobody else seems to have,” laughed Miccolis, noting the irregularity that an Italian restaurant should be renowned for such an American dish.
But high quality ingredients are only half of Chi-Chi’s two pronged approach to longevity.
“I would say we’re (also) focused on the grassroots level,” he said. “We focus on the schools, elementary and middle school, and we get requests from them and I try to focus on them.”
“We do have a lot of requests for team meetings, business meetings, things like that. It’s definitely a meeting place.”
While Miccolis noted the significance of Chi-Chi’s diamond jubilee, he also described the dichotomous situation the chain will face as it attempts to continue to operate for 60 more years.
How, for example, does a restaurant that prides itself on the preservation of its traditional ambiance attract a younger, millennial customer base without alienating those who have frequented the parlor for decades?
Miccolis believes he can appease his younger customers without compromising the values upon which Chi-Chi’s has prospered.
“It’s always a challenge to not change,” Miccolis said. “The way my dad ran it was old school and I learned the same way.”
“But at the same time,” he said, “people change and new generations are coming through, and we still have to be adaptable to that generation and try to see what it is that they’re looking for.”
Chi-Chi’s has experimented with new delivery options, which Miccolis says are more popular among millenials, and has begun to offer gluten-free products.
“We’ll tweak the menu a little bit so that millenials can feel appreciated,” he said. “But at the same time, I want them to experience what made us great in the first place.”
And for Chi-Chi’s, nothing trumps the continuity of its pizza experience.
“The Saugus (location) has been open for 51 years now,” he said. “We have people that were there since day one.”
The onion fields that once surrounded Chi-Chi’s slowly dissolved, replaced instead by the busiest intersection in Santa Clarita. The horned rimmed glasses of Miccolis’ father now stare out onto thousands of cars daily.
Miccolis cleared his throat.
“The community grew up with us.”
Chi-Chi’s Pizza is located at 23043 Soledad Canyon Rd. in Saugus and at 27117 Sierra Hwy in Canyon Country.