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Positivity, not Panic, Helps Propel Fuzzy’s Taco Shop


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Fuzzy's Taco Shop rolled out family meals to help boost its off-premises orders during the pandemic.

Rewind to March 16: Fuzzy’s Taco Shop franchisee Eddie White was supposed to kick off a week of March Madness promotions and radio spots for his eight restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. With 15-plus TVs in a restaurant and people coming out for tacos, beer and margaritas, the NCAA Tournament typically is big business for Fuzzy’s, but this time, “There was nobody walking in the restaurant,” said White, “… and you quickly realize the world has changed.”

White, the first franchisee in a Fuzzy’s system that now numbers 160 locations in 17 states, said his immediate thought was preservation—"How do I preserve cash?”—before changing to, “How do I take advantage of every person out there that needs a meal?

“How do I make it as easy as possible for them to get their Fuzzy’s fix?”

Speaking today during a webinar presented by the International Franchise Association, White, along with members of the Fuzzy’s Taco Shop executive team, detailed how they’ve responded over the past 10 weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing government-mandated closures began disrupting business operations.

“We’re not going to panic,” said President Mel Knight, referring to a guiding principle in place throughout the crisis. “We chose to not focus on the negative. A negative for us is we don’t have drive-thrus,” so the franchise immediately set a goal of identifying a new idea to execute around its off-premises operations every three to five days.

“Day one was talking about curbside, which was pretty foreign to Fuzzy’s at the time,” continued Knight, who’s been with the brand since it opened its second location in 2006. (NRD Capital acquired Fuzzy’s in 2016 when it had 90 units.) Fuzzy’s had online ordering and delivery capabilities but most of its pre-pandemic sales came from dine-in customers, necessitating a quick change across the board.   

Laura Purser, the brand’s VP of marketing, said a curbside program was put together “within a matter of 24 hours,” including door signs and banners, plus the launch of Fuzzy’s Family Meals, an initiative that was researched two years ago but never implemented. Social media messaging switched to promoting new ordering methods and even, in some locations where states allow it, beer and margaritas to go (pictured).

From her position as chief financial officer, Jessica Wescott said the brand’s 2020 strategic plan was put on hold and her focus shifted to helping franchisees control their own destiny. “If it was an idea that could drive sales, it was on the table,” she said. “Stabilizing is not good enough—we’ve got to add to it in the coming weeks.” Franchisees, she continued, were given even more autonomy to test new ideas to find what worked in their market.

“Let’s all try things, but don’t be afraid to pivot quick if you’re not seeing results,” is the message to franchisees, Wescott said.

All of White’s Dallas-area restaurants have reopened for dine-in service, albeit at the state-mandated 25 percent capacity. Fuzzy’s is deploying its reopening playbook, which includes systemwide health and sanitation measures, along with state-specific recommendations and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our customers came back day one,” said White, who added the feedback has been positive and now it’s up to him and his team to make sure “we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.

“So far it’s been a win for us.”

Fast forward to May 5. Cinco de Mayo is usually one of the busiest days of the year for Fuzzy’s, and at White’s restaurants, people were lined up in the parking lot, some to come in for fajitas and margaritas and others to snag their curbside order. “Sales-wise, it was a phenomenal day, much more than I would have anticipated considering what the model is right now,” he said.

Systemwide, sales were “only down 3.4 percent over last year’s Cinco,” said Westcott, with 82 percent of sales coming from off-premises channels versus 21 percent in 2019.

“I think, if anything, the big win for the day was hope,” she said. “And it’s hope that, it’s not just Fuzzy’s, it’s not just tacos, it’s not just the Mexican category, but for the whole restaurant industry, people are going to be eager to get out when they feel safe. And if we can cultivate the environment in our restaurants, they’re going to come back.”

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
 
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
 
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
 
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at
 twitter.com/mlarson1011.
 

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