Latino-Led Cilantro Taco Grill Looks to Scale Authentic Mexican Cuisine

    The emerging fast casual, supported by Fransmart and music artist Pitbull, is eyeing 1,000 locations worldwide. 

    Web Exclusives | September 13, 2023 | Ben Coley
    Cilantro Taco Grill.
    Cilantro Taco Grill
    Cilantro Taco Grill has 15 locations across Chicagoland.

    Temoc Morfin's father Don Javi led his wife and 11 children across the border from Guadalajara, Mexico, so that his family could capture their slice of the American dream. 

    For Morfin, that was a taco shop. Something akin to Chipotle, but drawn from the traditions of Guadalajara and flavors cooked by his mother and sisters. In 2013, opportunity knocked on his door, and a spot opened on the corner of a busy intersection in Stone Park, a western suburb of Chicago. 

    This is where Cilantro Taco Grill was born. The menu offers Mexican classics, such as tacos, burritos, and tortas made with guests' choice of protein. There's also a taco salad, burrito bowl, tamales, and signature dinner meals served with a set of rice, beans, salad, and tortillas: Cecina A La Mexicana (thin salted steak), Milanesa de Pollo/Res (breaded chicken/steak), Bistek a La Mexican (flank steak), and Chile Relleno (two stuffed peppers). 

    "I said, 'This is it. This is where the dream begins,'" Morfin says. 

    Ten years later, the fast casual sits at 15 locations (three more stores are under development) and is on the cusp of a major franchising strategy that could bring 1,000 Cilantros to markets worldwide over the next 10 years. The brand is partnering with Fransmart founder Dan Rowe, who was responsible for the massive growth of Five Guys, QDOBA, and The Halal Guys. He was also an early investor in now public chains Sweetgreen and CAVA. The relationship between Rowe and Morfin works well because of shared values, particularly an emphasis on creating wealth for families. During Cilantro's expansion, each of Morfin's siblings opened a store, making his father proud. 

    The growth will also be backed by Armando Christian Perez—aka global music artist Pitbull—who inspired Rowe to seek a Latino-led brand after an enlightening meeting in Miami. 

    "He basically sat there kind of quiet, like not even looking at me just looking up in the air and he goes, 'How come no Mexican chains are owned by Mexicans? How come no Latino brands are owned by Latinos?'" Rowe recalls. "And he goes, ‘How come all the people doing all the work in the restaurants are people of color, but they're not really getting rich, they're sort of getting paid enough so that they don't leave?’ And he was going on this rant and I was enjoying it. He had a chip on his shoulder. He had an attitude about it. He at some point seemed like he was getting really irritated at this whole idea."

    Similar to Morfin, Pitbull desired a concept that could connect Latinos to wealth and create a path from part-time back-of-house jobs to managerial roles and owner/operator positions. The initial idea was to develop a restaurant from scratch, but Rowe decided it would be better to join forces with one already checking these boxes. Cilantro seamlessly fit into what Pitbull and Rowe were cooking up. 

    "I'm like, 'You know what, I don't want to start something,'" Rowe remembers telling Pitbull. "'Why don't we go find somebody? Let's go find someone who's already in business, already successful, already figured it out. And then let's just splash gas on that fire. Let's help them. Let's help these folks get to that level.'"

    During the initial call, Rowe felt Morfin and Cilantro were the right move, but nervousness remained because he hadn't tried the food yet. Once he dove into the menu, he was reminded of his time living in Los Angeles and traveling down to parts of Mexico where the locals go to eat street food. It was exactly what he and Pitbull were searching for—authenticity. 

    It also helps that Cilantro is already a healthy brand, which is unlike what Rowe has experienced in the past. With Five Guys franchising, sales in the first couple of stores weren't top-notch; not because of customers, but due to weirdly placed locations. The Halal Guys began with food carts, so Rowe had to put together a model in which franchisees could succeed. Meanwhile, Cilantro's labor and food costs are better than the industry average. Additionally, it earns $1.4 million in AUV and $1,180 per square foot, which Rowe claims is twice the amount of a typical Chipotle or Five Guys. In fact, Cilantro in one case took over a failed Chipotle in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. It also entered a building formerly occupied by Baja Fresh and found success. 

    With a profitable framework ready to go, Fransmart is filling in with franchising expertise. That means cutting down the menu and moving certain processes in the kitchen—like making sauces for example—into the hands of a co-packer that can make it according to the restaurant's specs. And no matter where franchisees may open, they will buy furniture, fixtures, signs, and equipment from the same companies. Food will be distributed through US Foods. 

    "We've learned quite a bit and we know that, yeah, there's always room for improvement," Morfin says. "There's always a change or two that we need to make so that once the first franchisee starts, that person is able to take advantage and is also able to take off running with the model that's already specialized to be a franchise."

    The strategy will be to open more corporate stores in Chicagoland, alongside joint-venture restaurants with operators who have aspirations to run a unit, but may not have the necessary funds. After that, Cilantro will go after the top 100 media markets in North America. Internationally, the fast casual will explore 15-20 trade areas; Rowe calls out Germany, the U.K., Dubai, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia as potential destinations. 

    "My dad always made sure that we are thankful to this country because we came here and even though we crossed the border illegally, we felt welcome," Morfin says. "Our family story is so much similar to hundreds and thousands and millions of people that come here as immigrants to this country. And the opportunity is endless here. Whoever comes here and is not successful is because they don't want to be successful. Everything is offered here and we are forever thankful to this country. And my dad always emphasized that and I always do to my kids."