Rusty Taco Ready for Kick Off Under Inspire Brands
Rusty Taco is a bit of an oddity within Inspire Brands. It’s in the mix with more than 11,100 restaurants of Arby’s, Sonic, Buffalo Wild Wings and the latest pick-up, Jimmy John’s.
Before Rusty Taco was wrapped up in Inspire Brands, it had already gone through some big changes. The street taco spot inside an old gas station began franchising very early, jumping from Dallas to St. Paul, Minnesota, in its second year and experiencing rapid growth for a few years, both franchise and corporate.
Then, Rusty Fenton, the founder and CEO, succumbed to cancer just before he was set to meet Buffalo Wild Wings execs to discuss an acquisition. A year later, co-founder Steve Dunn and Denise Fenton—Rusty’s wife who took on a lot of development and franchise growth duties—got the Buffalo Wild Wings deal across the line. Fenton took the reins as the brand storyteller, sharing Rusty’s vision of a neighborhood street taco shop.
“When I share the story with people, it comes from a very authentic and heartfelt place, this is my life and it’s a life I shared with Rusty,” said Fenton, who presented during the 2020 Franchise Investment Conference. “When people hear that story, they connect, and I’m so glad that I can carry on his story.”
But soon after things started to normalize under Buffalo Wild Wings ownership, there was another big transformation. Arby’s Restaurant Group acquired Buffalo Wild Wings and Inspire Brands was formed. At fewer than 30 locations at the time, it seemed when Inspire formed that the concept could get lost in the shuffle.
“I didn’t know about us, we’re a little brand. I started to do a little research and looked into Paul Brown. Shortly after the acquisition was announced, I thought, ‘I hope someone tells Paul Brown about Rusty Taco,” said Fenton.
As fate would have it, Fenton happened to be working in one of the original Dallas-area locations when Brown walked in the door.
“In walks Paul Brown, and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Denise Fenton, I want to tell you the Rusty Taco story.' I was able to tell Paul our story in person,” said Fenton.
Since then, Rusty Taco has become kind of the cool younger brother to the mega brands inside Inspire. Fenton said she can see that on casual Fridays when corporate staff wear branded T-shirts.
“There’s a particularly exciting part of Rusty Taco, they love the brand and the food. Rusty Taco is by far the most popular T-shirt,” said Fenton.
But it’s not just T-shirts. Brendan Mauri joined the company as president in February 2020 and has big plans for the company, specifically leveraging his deep background in marketing.
As Mauri gets to work on helping Fenton amplify the Rusty Taco story with menu innovation, menu management, point of purchase marketing, digital and all the other marketing outlets, Fenton said she’s eager to focus on growing the company and leaning on all the shared services in Inspire, from customer insights to real estate support and all the technology a 33-location brand could never afford.
According to Joe Sieve, the vice president of franchise development who spent some time as Rusty Taco's president, expect big things from the brand in the near future, despite its tagalong acquisition into the parent company.
“To quote Paul Brown, Rusty Taco was the best BOGO ever,” said Sieve. “It’s probably one of the most exciting emerging brands. My role over the last year was really get the brand ready and poised for growth. Over the last 12 to 15 months we set up a number of initiatives at the brand and fully utilized those shared services. So, this year is when we really want to kick it off.”