Chef Jose Garces’ Buena Onda is kicking off a franchising program this summer, a goal the James Beard Award winner has had since the restaurant’s inception in 2015.

The difference now is the partnership with Ballard Brands, which bought Garces Restaurant Group out of bankruptcy for $8 million in July 2018. Garces and the new owner teamed up to form a new entity, IdEATion Hospitality, with the chef serving as chief culinary officer. Through this partnership, the two sides spent years laying the groundwork for Buena Onda’s expansion.

In addition to Garces’ group of restaurants, Ballard also owns WOW American Eats and PJ’s Coffee, a franchise that added 62 agreements last year and opened more than 40 new locations across 2020 and 2021. David Q. Mesa Jr., the company’s chief development officer, says Buena Onda’s revenues and investment level portends similar growth and success. But for him, as simple as it sounds, one taste of the menu is convincing enough.

“It really does come back to the product,” explains Garces, echoing Mesa’s point. “And when we were thinking about the concept and looking around the competitive landscape in the Mexican fast-casual quick-serve model, I did notice that there was certainly a gap in quality of product, flavors, and just execution and really being able to bring some of these unique recipes as well as homemade touches to a scalable model.”

“ … We have a customized press that presses out the tortillas, and it’s really again those little details that makes a difference in something that’s just mediocre or for a great product,” he adds.

The selections are inspired by Mexico’s Baja peninsula, including fish tacos (house-made flour tortilla, chipotle remoulade, avocado, red cabbage slaw, scallions) that are fried or glazed with tequila lime. There’s also a lineup of burritos and bowls, and starters such as nachos, tortilla soup, and quesadillas. The beverage menu features margaritas, draft beers, aguas frescas, and Mexican Coke.

“I actually just came there with my wife who tried it for the first time and she was blown away, and that truly is the differentiator that we think is going to take us to that next level,” Mesa says. “Obviously, chef Jose has a tremendous reputation in the culinary world. So we’re excited for the partnership and to be able to take that and replicate that across the country.”

Buena Onda’s opening seven years ago marked Garces’ first venture into fast casual and his 19th restaurant overall. The concept is based in Philadelphia on Callowhill Street, and two more are scheduled to open next month on North Radnor Chester Road and South 20th Street. Those will be corporate restaurants; two others are on the cusp of being announced, and they will be franchised locations owned by major foodservice management operators.

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“We have gone through great lengths to sort out everything from how the kitchen and the trade dress is designed to the menu to the training aspects of it and operations end of it,” says David Q. Mesa Jr., Ballard Brands chief development officer. “So we’re real excited about identifying those individuals that are passionate and wanting to execute our system.”

When the Mexican fast casual’s growth journey began, Ballard was mostly concerned about delivering the culinary experience of a James Beard Award winner, while also making sure the package was fit for the everyday franchisee—a passionate operator that’s aspiring to open their first restaurant, but may not have the expertise to executive at a high level right out of the gate.

To create a replicable model, Ballard partnered with a company that operates a network of 40 commissary locations across the U.S. The organization is also using Styer Associates as a one-stop solution for design and construction services to efficiently open new restaurants and minimize delays.

The menu is being tweaked, but with no monumental changes. Garces says Buena Onda may explore other sustainable seafood items and protein-based or plant-based products, but those evolutions will come over time.

“I think what’s exciting for me is, in terms of differentiating our product and brand, I’m really looking forward to exercising our creativity and offering, you know, limited-time offer items that eventually will probably make itself on the menu or really continue to evolve and develop new and exciting items for our franchisees going forward,” Garces says. “That’s happening and will continue to happen. And again, it is I think one of our great differentiating points is that I can apply some of my iron chef knowledge and 30 years of cooking and just really pour it into what’s already a great brand.”

In terms of store design, changes are still underway for the North Radnor Chester Road and South 20th Street units. As those continue, Ballard is updating the existing location to create a unified brand standard. The biggest shift is the removal of the bar in favor of a designated station for takeout/delivery pickup. Prior to COVID, Buena Onda’s off-premises mixed 35 percent, but now, it’s hovering around 50 percent.

“The power of our takeout and delivery program, it really blossomed,” Garces says. “It was already strong, but certainly during the pandemic it has continued to stay strong, and creating a zone in which guests can come in and easily pick up their food—whether it’s cubbies or different ways to differentiate—I think that we just found a lot of value in that going forward.”

Because the takeout/delivery program is so aggressive, Mesa believes Buena Onda could thrive in either suburban or urban markets. Ballard is personally investing in locations to prove as much; the upcoming North Radnor Chester Road outlet is an inline suburban store while the South 20th Street restaurant is based in a much denser, urban locale. Each store will range between 1,500 to 2,000 square feet.

The plan is to start in Philadelphia and grow into surrounding Northeastern markets. Mesa’s goal is to reach 25 franchise agreements by the end of 2022, and with the interest Buena Onda is already receiving, he’s confident the fast casual will get there.

The size of potential deals depends on the market and level of expertise, Mesa says. Buena Onda and Ballard are speaking to individuals who are new to the franchising sector, and with those prospects, larger multi-unit agreements are unlikely. At the same time, the group is negotiating with sophisticated operators who could handle such an undertaking. Regardless, Mesa says Buena Onda’s franchising system is built in a way that if a restaurateur has the requisite attitude and financial standing, they would fit well into the business, no matter their background.

Those interested in franchising will have opportunities to meet Garces in person at monthly seminars, with the first one coming this Thursday.

“We have gone through great lengths to sort out everything from how the kitchen and the trade dress is designed to the menu to the training aspects of it and operations end of it,” Mesa says. “So we’re real excited about identifying those individuals that are passionate and wanting to execute our system.”

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Web Exclusives, Buena Onda