Robert Rodriguez came to the U.S. without knowing English, and like many other immigrants, found his voice through restaurants.
His resume now features 50 years’ worth of industry experience—on the franchising and corporate side—including notable executive stops at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Denny’s. As he aged, Rodriguez became increasingly interested in running an organization that gives back to the community and creates a clear-cut career ladder for employees.
“How do I lead and how do I show people that this is an industry and this is a profession and it’s not a job and how do I give back?” Rodriguez says. “So I can give you example after example of going into restaurants and we see people who are struggling, don’t know what they want to do with their careers and businesses.”
“This is a great career,” he adds. “It’s really a great career, and it’s not just because you make money. It’s because I’m going teach you about a profit and loss statement, I’m going to teach you how to manage people, I’m going to teach you how to lead individuals, I’m going to teach you how to run a multimillion dollar business. Where else are you given that opportunity in life?”
In pursuit of this dream, Rodriguez partnered with private equity firm Triton Pacific Capital to form franchising company, Tasty Restaurant Group. From the start, the goal was to enter agreements in quick service because of its recession-proof nature and ability to withstand different pressures, like a global pandemic. Rodriguez sought the best of fast food so he could worry less about brand management and leadership and more about developing people and fine-tuning operations.
The first acquisition was Burger King in June 2018. Tasty Restaurant Group also considered Wendy’s, but Rodriguez previously worked at Burger King and served as a franchisee; he also grew up in Miami, where the chain is headquartered. A year and a half later, Rodriguez leveraged his years of experience with PepsiCo—the parent of Yum! Brands—to buy into Pizza Hut. Then, after serving as Dunkin’ president from 2006–2008, the industry veteran became a franchisee for the doughnut chain and sister concept Baskin-Robbins. Rodriguez rounded out Tasty Restaurant Group with KFC and Taco Bell in December 2021.
The franchise company now operates roughly 400 restaurants in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. Tasty Restaurant Group is most heavily invested in Pizza Hut (221 stores), followed by KFC (90), Burger King (68), Dunkin’ (20), and Baskin-Robbins (six).
“Our mission continues to be the same,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve got to take care of our people first and foremost. We want to be a leading brand running great restaurants. But more importantly for me, it’s taking care of the people who will do that. Because I keep reminding everyone that at the end of the day, there are only cash registers in the restaurants. They’re not anywhere else. So the rest of us are just G&A and support staff.”
Of these brands, Dunkin’ is heading toward the biggest growth spurt. Tasty Restaurant Group recently signed a 45-unit deal to bring new locations to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and surrounding markets over the next several years. There are only 15 Dunkin’ stores in Louisiana, but Rodriguez says those select few are “performing extremely well.” As an executive that spent years trying to build out the fast-food chain west of the Mississippi, he understands the opportunities and power of the brand. Rodriguez also recognizes that if a chain doesn’t “go in full force” into those markets, it’s difficult to compete. He knows that strategy sounds counterintuitive to successful growth, but he explains that Dunkin’ relies on consumer accessibility. If a customer can’t obtain it, they will go elsewhere. But if it’s available and a habitual breakfast pattern is created, Dunkin’ becomes “one of the most powerful brands in that arena,” Rodriguez says.
He estimates that Tasty Restaurant Group’s real estate and construction department spent six to seven months mapping the markets, so finding locations won’t be an issue. Rodriguez says the bigger concern is striking the right real estate deals and providing a valuable return on investment for investors. He refers to higher construction costs “as bad as I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.” He adds, however, that the beauty of Dunkin’ is that customers are loyal, and if stores deliver the basics, they will not leave. For that reason, Rodriguez has great confidence in the significant 45-unit agreement.
“I think that market is a Dunkin’ market,” Rodriguez says. “It really is. Dunkin’ is about the blue-collar individual—the way you think about yourself. That’s a market right up their alley. And so the question is, can we execute and can we execute quickly, and can we grow successfully in a manner that makes sense? So we have the confidence, we have the experience. And if you put all things together, we feel that this is a great win for both of us, for Dunkin’ and for us, and allows us the ability to really grow, and put the brand on the map in that part of the world.”
Having switched between corporate and franchising multiple times in his career, Rodriguez understands the arguments of each side. From the franchisee perspective, he says, there may not always be clear sight on all the data and research that went into a decision. Operators may not realize several other ideas were vetted and rejected before the brand presents a certain one. He compares it to a military operation in which generals in Washington, D.C. are giving commands to soldiers on the ground.
Franchisors make the ultimate decision, but the important thought is whether franchisees’ voices are being heard. Rodriguez says Tasty Restaurant Group does its part by serving on committees.
“The question is sometimes, you’re in the middle of the battle and you just don’t see the forest because of the trees and that’s a part of you as a franchise,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes we got to pull ourselves out and say, ‘Help me understand how you got there. What’s the conclusion you’ve drawn?’ And we may agree to disagree.”
When Rodriguez was an executive, he faced the same issues. He remembers coming to franchisees and telling them next steps, only to be met with “we shouldn’t do this.” But what Rodriguez learned as a longtime corporate employee is that sometimes you have to choose a route without knowing 100 percent; on some occasions, it has to be 80 or 90 percent. And that’s because first to market wins, and second loses every time, he says.
Looking back on these decisions, the worst thing a brand can do is justify mistakes to franchisees, Rodriguez notes.
“You have to say, ‘I made a decision, let’s move on,’” he says. “If you do that, you continue to gain the trust and confidence of the community because you are going to make mistakes. You’re human, you’re not perfect in any way, shape, or form. But again, I think it’s this trust factor where everything starts from.”
Moving forward, Tasty Restaurant Group is eager to add concepts. Rodriguez hints that growth may come from more quick-service chains under Inspire Brands, which parents Sonic, Jimmy John’s, Arby’s, and Rusty Taco, in addition to Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins. Discussions are active, but nothing has been cemented.
The franchise’s goal is to reach 1,000 locations within 10 years.
“We’re very confident that in spite of the all the inflationary pressures, in spite of the fact that economic and political things are going down in the U.S., this is a very strong, vibrant industry and I’ve been doing this for 50 years and we faced a lot of things in this industry,” Rodriguez says. “And as we get involved with all these brands, you can see that they’re seeing the same challenge that we’re seeing and they’re trying to get in front of it.”