The good news
Naturally, reopening dining rooms would jolt Taco John’s system. Yet the chain that’s trademarked Taco Tuesday has done quite well without them.
From May through August, same-store sales climbed by an average of 6.85 percent each month. And it opened nearly half a dozen stores from the start of the pandemic through the middle of September.
Part of that success stems from the fact Taco John’s drive thru historically represents just under 65 percent of systemwide sales. So like many quick-serves, the brand was insulated a bit from the pandemic storm.
Also, Taco John’s enjoyed a record-setting tailwind coming into the year, Creel says. Comps lifted 4.5 percent in January, with positive transactions, and 11.8 percent in February (also with positive transactions). Through March 12, Taco John’s was up over 9 percent. In all, it was the chain’s best calendar start in more than two decades.
In 2019, Taco John’s generated total systemwide sales of $395 million—a 1.3 percent uptick from 2018’s performance of $390 million. The unit count slipped from 392 to 385, but average-unit volumes hiked to $1.017 million from $995,000, according to FoodserviceResults.
COVID rerouted the company's same-store sales to negative 12.5 percent in March. But it rebounded quickly. By April, Taco John’s top-line was negative 4.5 percent and has tracked positive ever since.
Creel says leadership met via Zoom seven days a week early on, just trying to decide how to help its 98 percent franchised system make it.
It wasn’t only safety and operational changes, either, but how to secure federal aid and shore up the balance sheet in case COVID endured longer than expected, which it did. A key turn: Roughly 80 percent of Taco John’s restaurants secured Paycheck Protection Program loans to bridge the March–April trough.
Going back to 2019, Taco John’s changed advertising agencies and linked up with Kansas City-based Barkley. The company dug into Taco John’s new “Bigger. Bolder. Better.” brand persona, coupled with a updated store design and image, and worked to break through to guests.
“The reason for the redesign and the whole makeover of our personal was really rooted in the problem that people didn’t know who we were,” Creel says. “Research told us we were there, they kind of knew us, but we were the creepy guy in the corner.”
Chicago-based food branding consultant Adrienne Weiss came on as well to look at Taco John’s visuals and direction, “just everything about us,” Creel says.
“And try to make us a little bit more of the cool kid.”
Between that reenergized look and Barkley’s creative spin, Taco John’s started to get its “Bigger. Bolder. Better.” messaging in front of the right audience, with a nod to differentiated value (hand-cut sirloin steak, etc.).
As COVID-19 loomed, however, Taco John’s was on the doorstep of introducing a new line of products. It pulled back and put its chips on value. Mainly, bulk food at a discount.
“Bigger. Bolder. Better” family bundles arrived where guests could order two breakfast burritos or two chicken quesadilla tacos for $5.
Next came the “Valuest Menu.” Still in pilot, it offers a $1, $2, $3 tier setup with items like the Chicken Snack Quesadilla on the one end, Cheesy Bacon Nachos in the middle, and the aforementioned Sirloin Steak & Potato Griller on the premium side.