Taco John’s is a strong brand. The company is one of the largest Mexican restaurant brands in the country, with more than 400 restaurants in 25 states, as well as a loyal following of customers who enjoy Taco John’s signature “West-Mex” offerings. But the company wants to use its strength to ensure continuous growth, and a new CEO and a refreshed management team is a key part of Taco John’s plan to move its brand forward.
“I came to Taco John’s for two reasons – for the growth opportunities I saw and because of the company’s culture,” says CEO Jeff Linville, who joined the company in April. “The company has been sitting at about 400 restaurants since 2005 with no big push or intention to grow; it was more into maintaining and preserving what it had. But in the past couple of years, the founder passed away and a board of directors formed, which wanted to start growing the brand.”
Linville has spent many years in the restaurant industry, most recently as senior vice president of Arby’s, running that brand’s entire central and northeastern U.S. operations. In addition to hiring Linville, Taco John’s also enhanced the management team with a new vice president of operations, chief development officer and vice president of franchise sales and services.
“Now we have a new recipe to go from 400 stores to many more, to get our margins and sales right and to bring more consistency with our food and service across our locations,” Linville says. “We are preparing to sell franchises again and grow our brand.”
Based in Cheyenne, Wyo., Taco John’s stores are located in the central and north-central regions of the United States, and unlike many other quick-service restaurant chains, it has focused its growth in smaller cities and rural areas. Taco John’s estimates that 97.5 percent of its locations are owned by independent franchisees, while the remaining restaurants are company-owned.
The first part of Taco John’s new “recipe” for growth involves improving its margins and expanding its sales. Linville explains this is happening in a number of ways, primarily by focusing on its menu, understanding its customer base and updating its restaurants. The brand’s core menu has carried Taco John’s for 34 years, he says, but the company wants to make some enhancements and changes to drive increased sales.
“We have a fantastic spiced beef that is used in 80 percent of our menu,” he says. “Chicken is a small part of the menu, and the corporate chef is bringing in new proteins and a fresher value equation, as well as eliminating items that have become irrelevant.”
The company has partnered with a media company – L&S Media – to help it increase its relevance in the market. This company is helping Taco John’s study which demographics are loyal to the brand and which demographics it has to go after. Working with the Taco John’s franchise business, L&S also is helping the company develop a new media campaign.
Taco John’s is working “very hard” on its facilities, Linville notes. The company has developed two new concepts, the first of which is Velocity. With eight seats inside, Velocity has a much smaller footprint than Taco John’s standard locations, allowing it to focus on its heavy drive-through business. “This concept has really performed beyond expectations,” Linville says.
The company also is introducing Taco John’s Signature, which is a modernized, free-standing restaurant concept that operates at a reduced cost than its standard stores, Linville says. “This concept has been designed with sleeker lines, a lot of glass, and we are using utility-friendly lighting systems,” he says.
Taco John’s gets a lot of feedback from its guests, and the brand found its customers believe its food sets it apart from other Mexican fast-food restaurants. The company is known for its generous portions and preparing everything fresh-to-order with high-quality ingredients and special recipes. All of Taco John’s menu items – such as burritos, tacos and quesadillas – are made with recipes that combine bold sauces, spices and salsas with “hearty helpings” of seasoned meats, cheeses and its signature Potato Oles.
Because its menu is so well-loved, Taco John’s maintains consistency in its food across stores in a number of ways. “All of our locations use the approved vendors, and we are very focused on getting the best possible product for the best possible price,” Linville says. “We have a very standard menu nationwide and Taco John’s historically – much to its benefit – has been a very entrepreneurially driven company. We are really trying to drive that entrepreneurial spirit as we grow.”
In terms of consistency, Taco John’s is more focused on its service. Linville believes the restaurants all maintain a high level of service, but how they approach it differs. “Different stores and different areas of the country have developed their own service systems,” he explains. “We are trying to find the system that’s best.”
What he believes drives this service is the company’s culture, which Linville is proud to say is staying consistent. “This has been a family run business for more than 40 years,” he says. “It’s a very family oriented culture and that has really been a strength of the brand through the tougher times. You go to a Taco John’s convention, and everyone has their families there.
“Also, the company has a very open culture,” he adds. “People speak freely and respectfully, and that results in much better decisions and no hostility. We have a very close franchise community. The corporate office remains very close with them, and we do all we can to help them maintain their business.”
‘Passion and Engagement’
Taco John’s is dedicated to maintaining all of its strengths as it grows. Linville explains the brand is heavy in the west and northwest regions, but it would like to spread more south and west to balance its portfolio. He believes that with an enhanced menu and new media campaign, Taco John’s is well-suited to break into those new markets.
“We are really all about food quality,” he says. “We are in the Mexican QSR part of the business and we’ve looked very hard at our segment. Hands down, we have superior food quality, and we want to build on that. We have the best menu and the freshest items with the best tastes and spices.
“The passion and engagement of everybody in this system is really great for our plans going forward,” he adds. “There is an incredible amount of passion and loyalty to Taco John’s here, and that really makes it a pleasure to go to work every day.”