What started in 2006 as a single Torchy’s Tacos trailer with a small menu has become a chain of 37 brick-and-mortar stores offering a choice of 20 different breakfast and lunch tacos.
That original trailer is still in business less than a block away from its original parking place, but most Torchy’s Tacos locations are 3,500 square feet or more in size with seating for 160 guests between dining rooms and pet-friendly patios.
“I maxed out my credit cards and took out a second mortgage on my house to buy that trailer,” says founder Mike Rypka. “At that time, a trailer was not the cool thing to do. It was difficult to find a location, and we got off to a slow start.”
To get the business going, Rypka hopped onto his red Vespa scooter, which now hangs on the wall of Torchy’s headquarters, and handed out samples of chips and salsa, inviting people to come and try the tacos. Rypka, a chef with years of restaurant experience, realized his dream of opening a stationary location in 2008.
“My biggest goal was to get into a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” he says. “I didn’t plan on as many locations as we have, but more great people were recruited and added to the team, making more stores a possibility, and we had customersbegging for us to come to other locations.”
Customer feedback has always been important to Rypka. The company’s slogan, “Damn Good,” comes from comments he heard from customers when they tasted the tacos, and the menu has grown to include 20 varieties thanks to feedback on each taco of the month.
“The taco-of-the-month special gives us a chance to be creative and bring in some different ingredients,” Rypka says. “It’s how just about every taco has gotten on the menu.”
FOUNDER: Mike Rypka
HQ: Austin, Texas
YEAR STARTED: 2006
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 37
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Lunch taco offerings include the Green Chili Pork, which is a taco filled with slow-roasted pork carnitas that were simmered with green chilies. It is topped with queso fresco, cilantro, onions, and a wedge of lime. The list of lunch tacos also includes the Baja Shrimp taco, which has fried shrimp, cooked cabbage slaw, pickled jalapeños and onions, queso fresco, and cilantro and is served with chipotle sauce. The lunch taco called Mr. Orange is made with blackened salmon and topped with a grilled corn and black bean relish, queso fresco, cilantro, and avocado salsa.
Rypka says the most popular lunch taco is the Trailer Park, made with fried chicken, green chilies, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, and poblano sauce. Breakfast choices include a bacon, egg, and cheese taco; potato, egg, and cheese taco; and, for those who like a little kick with their breakfast, the jalapeño sausage, egg, and cheese taco.
Though the menu is divided into breakfast and lunch tacos, Rypka says, all tacos are available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends, including breakfast tacos.
“People don’t think of us at breakfast time as much as we’d like them to,” he says. “It depends on the location. Our Fort Worth restaurant is in a hospital district, so we get huge breakfast crowds coming off of night shift. We also do more breakfast business at locations that are in a commuter line of traffic. And we do a good amount of to-go business for breakfast. People order tacos for office meetings.”
Most guests, he says, order one or two tacos—priced between $2.25 for the bacon, egg, and cheese and $5.50 for the taco of the month—and share a side of queso and chips. With a drink, that brings the per-person check average to around $13.
The chips, queso, and all other sauces and sides at Torchy’s are made from scratch, meaning the team is making fresh batches throughout the day. Rypka says that amount of scratch cooking at each location is why he hasn’t considered franchising Torchy’s Tacos.
“I’ve never been excited about franchising,” he says. “I don’t think we’re a franchise model because of all the things we have to do at each store every day. We have systems in place, but franchising would have to be a different model than what we’ve established. You lose a lot when you start commissary-cooking things.”
Torchy’s Tacos is poised for growth, however. Earlier this year, the concept entered the Denver market, and Rypka says there are plans for more stores there and in Oklahoma. The company is also in the process of choosing a second hub.
“We probably won’t be a national brand, but our projection in five years is that we’d like to be at the 90-store mark,” he says.
Rypka says he’s being thoughtful about growth, just like he is about preparing and sourcing food for Torchy’s Tacos.
“We do a lot of research on who we get supplies from to make sure they are safe and good quality for our customers,” he says. “We make sure there’s non-GMO corn in the tortillas, and we’re moving toward non-GMO wheat flour tortillas. We changed shrimp suppliers to get all-natural shrimp. We’re not farm to table by any stretch, but we try to do what we can. We’re not looking for the cheapest ingredients; we try and make sure we buy good ingredients.”