Rusty Taco gets assist from Buffalo Wild Wings.
BWW “gave us a really big present,” says Denise Fenton, left, with CEO Steve Dunn.
Of all the taco joints in the world, Buffalo Wild Wings’ emerging brands team walked into theirs, and Rusty Taco is reaping the rewards of being under the established brand’s wing.
Rusty Fenton knew his dream was in the works, he just never lived to see it come true. The day the emerging brand’s team from Buffalo Wild Wings was scheduled to make the trek down to Dallas for further talks, Fenton’s cancer got the best of him and he passed away.
“They were going to cancel,” Steve Dunn, CEO of Rusty Taco, said, “but we said ‘no, this was his dream.’” Dunn, who was the silent partner in the taco chain before Fenton died, kept the appointment with BWW about 18 months ago. “We met Wednesday and the funeral was Thursday,” Dunn says, apologizing for needing a moment to collect himself.
Fenton’s widow, Denise, now the brand director, said the last thing Fenton had written was “BWW6/24.” At the time she didn’t know what it meant, because Dunn and Fenton were under a confidentiality agreement.
BWW did invest in Rusty Taco late last August, which in effect gave wings to a fledgling concept. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to partner with someone who can help bring vision,” Dunn says. “We have access to their portfolio of experts…they have earmarked certain people to work with us…I have a voice…If there’s a downside, I haven’t found it.”
“Rusty gave us a present,” Denise Fenton says of the taco chain. “They (BWW) gave us a really big present.”
Dunn met Fenton when he was looking for an iconic brand to anchor one of his malls in Overland, Kansas, and Fenton suggested Trader Vic’s, which had a cult following at the time. The restaurant never opened because “2008 happened,” Dunn says.
Instead of a restaurant concept, Dunn got an instant friend. “Rusty loved food, he loved people,” he says. “His passion was infectious.”
One of his passions was street tacos. For years he talked about wanting to open his own taco shop but the timing was never right. Denise Fenton remembers the time they were returning from a deep-sea fishing trip in Mexico and Fenton spotted two older women with a big blue enamel pot at the dock making fish tacos. When he told her he was going to try them, Denise recoiled. “I said, ‘Do you see a refrigerator?’” she says. “Rusty loved it; I wouldn’t touch it.” Her prediction didn’t come true: He didn’t get sick, and the fish taco showed up on his line-up of tacos, along with pulled pork, fried chicken and brisket.
Fenton kept a notebook on how to develop the brand, and once it was filled, Dunn put together an investment group in Omaha. Fenton presented his plan to the group while cooking three versions of his tacos in a friend’s kitchen. In 2010 the first Rusty Taco opened in the Dallas area.
In a fortuitous twist of faith, they got into franchising because Dunn’s college roommate who lives in Minnesota wanted to open one—the very store the executive from Buffalo Wild Wings visited. The franchisee “walked them around and engaged them,” Dunn says, a move that helped seal the deal. Rusty had nine units at the time.
Working with Buffalo Wild Wings has “far exceeded my expectations,” Dunn says. They now have the ability to do things a small chain could never afford to outsource, such as collecting customer analytics and sophisticated site selection. “It’s like we went from high school ball to the Super Bowl,” he says.