Rusty Taco restaurants are usually between 2,400 and 2,800 square feet, but some stores fall outside of that range, like one 2,000-square-foot store that’s performed well, according to the president. The brand has inline and standalone outlets, but endcap is the preferred and most common destination due to the patio space.
Although more quick-service chains are exploring drive-thru, Rusty Taco decided to move against that trend because of its scratch-made menu. However, the fast casual does plan to investigate mobile order pickup windows.
Before COVID, the brand skewed toward dine-in; almost two years into the pandemic, the mix between dining room and off-premises is about 50/50. Digital used to represent less than 10 percent of sales, and that’s risen to around 30 percent.
“We want to be in tune with guest trends and what guests are looking for going forward,” Mauri says. “And so we've certainly adapted in that way. That said, a big part of our brand also is the dining experience—come as you are, relaxed atmosphere. When it's in-season we do a great amount of our business on patios and so I think it's a balance. But our food travels really well. We see so many people taking it to-go that we're adapting to that, as well.”
One of Rusty Taco’s most notable off-premises ventures was the opening of Inspire’s Alliance Kitchen, the first ghost kitchen owned and operated by a multi-brand restaurant company. Based in Atlanta, the venue allows customers to order through a particular brand's online ordering platform or via third-party apps.
Mauri says Alliance Kitchen facilitated Rusty Taco's first entrance into Atlanta and has provided valuable learnings on nontraditional operations. The chain already has one in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, and the president sees potential for more nontraditional spots in airports, college campuses, and other stadiums.
“[Alliance Kitchen] has allowed the ops teams across the brands to see how all the brands operate side by side, and that's given us various insights that we can apply to all of our restaurants across the country,” Mauri says.
Rusty Taco is among a list of taco fast casuals eyeing growth in 2022 and beyond. The 150-unit Fuzzy’s Taco Shop hopes to double in size to more than 300 stores in the next five years. The chain opened this year by announcing a 50-unit agreement for the Southeast. Additionally, Velvet Taco aims to reach 40 units by the end of 2022, and Torchy’s Tacos recently debuted its 100th store.
Mauri says there’s room for multiple chains in the category, given the high demand. As for how Rusty Taco will maintain its share of that available demand, he points to the collaborative support of Inspire, which helped the company roll out an award-winning learning management system, among other initiatives.
The industry veteran also lauds Rusty Taco’s simple and fresh menu, filled with unique ingredients, house-made salsas and sauces, and hand-made tacos.
“We’re founded on a street taco neighborhood taco stand experience and we always stay true to that,” Mauri says.