Taco John’s Innovates Around Legacy Heritage
As you get older, it gets tougher to change your mind. In fact, psychologists say people’s personalities rarely change after age 30. And it’s the same with brands—as a concept ages into the “legacy” territory the personality is pretty locked in.
So updating Taco John's strategically means innovating around that brand personality without drastically changing it, and leaning on employees and customers to help chart the path. Jim Creel, CEO of the nearly 400-unit concept, said there is a lot going on as the brand turns 50 but nothing that changes the core concept, they're simply adding some polish.
“Over the last couple years we’ve been working on a new persona,” said Creel. “Everything from packaging to uniforms to the building, all of that is rolling out this summer. All the packaging is out now, and we have four of our new prototypes under construction.”
Part of that fresh prototype is a hard look at the back of house. The company hired researchers to do a time-and-motion study to see where they can move equipment or carve out space to reduce extra steps in daily tasks. Creel said he would also be talking to employees about their least-favorite tasks.
“We know that because we make so much fresh in the back, it’s a much harder job in the back than say McDonald’s, so we want to make it easy as possible to stay with us and take some of the mundane tasks,” said Creel. “We brought in a company to do a time and motion study, and then we also want to hear it directly from the employees. If there is one task we could take out of the restaurant, what would that be?”
He said they would be discussing those tasks at a big manager conference coming up soon. And the combination of the study and employee feedback could change how the company makes pico de gallo or the process around the popular sliced-steak protein.
He said the company continues to innovate on the menu as well. Franchisees have noted some good LTOs such as street tacos and carnitas. A new gold churro (dusted with gold-colored sugar) and a $50,000 giveaway with Pepsi will help celebrate the 50th anniversary, but the company also leaned on customers for a little help guidance.
“We asked customers what was the one we should bring back,” said Creel. “Hands down it was the Sierra Chicken Sandwich, so we have a promo for that right now.”
And one menu innovation came right from the company’s menu committee that blends corporate chefs and franchisees.
“We want to keep the pipeline full of new products, and in September we’re rolling out in a couple test markets the menu of the future,” said Creel.
On that new menu will be enchiladas, something unique among QSR across the Taco John’s markets. And the new menu will include a bold claim, and a novel product for the company that doesn’t innovate beyond its Midwestern heritage with anything zany, but making the classic taco a little better.
“That menu will include the Taco Perfecto which is the perfect taco, it’s a little longer than a normal taco, but a little lower, so you get a little of everything in every bite,” said Creel, noting that this reduces those dreaded all-lettuce bites.
There’s a lot of other projects brewing as well from expanding the breakfast day part that has grown organically since 2017 and hiring a new VP of development to help grow the brand with existing and then new franchisees and a food truck project that franchisees are quite excited about.
As for keeping up with a quickly evolving industry at 50 years old, Creel said it’s just a matter of tuning in and constant testing; which puts them in a good place for another 50 years.
“We attend a lot of conferences, we keep a close eye on what the competition is doing on and we keep experimenting. We know that right now, the restaurant world is kind of going through what I call right sizing,” said Creel. “So there’s a lot of restaurants closing, which we believe sets us up for a good position going forward because we’re a good stable brand and we’ll survive this right sizing and come out stronger on the other side. So were preparing for growth in the next couple years.”