Tacos: All about personality
Tacos are more of a blank canvas for culinary exploration than perhaps any other food, making the fast-casual taco scene one that runs the gamut in terms of taste and inspiration.
“The taco scene is growing, and we’re seeing a lot of creativity in the market—the flavors and fusion that can take place with a taco are evolving,” says Chronic Tacos CEO Michael Mohammed. “In each brand you can find a different offering, and the end product can vary from concept to concept.”
In Chronic’s case, inspiration is sourced from classic California taquerias. Chronic tacos are updated takes on traditional fare and feature a protein (chicken, shrimp, fish, carnitas, veggie, grass-fed steak, al pastor, or Beyond meat), layers of flavorful rice and beans, and fresh toppings like white queso, cilantro, and cabbage.
Compare this more traditional take with the handhelds at Torchy’s Tacos, an Austin-based chain famous for its “damn good” offerings. Torchy’s serves irreverently named, unique ingredient mixes like the Tipsy Chick, which includes marinated and grilled chicken breast, spinach, grilled corn, green chilies, chipotle sauce, and a side of bacon bourbon marmalade.
The range of flavor options demonstrated by a Chronic-Torchy’s comparison widens when you take a look at other brands in the space—for instance, Atlanta-based Taqueria del Sol specializes in Southern-Mexican-Southwestern fusion, and Fuzzy’s out of Fort Worth, Texas, offers Baja-style flavors.
Thanks to this variety, having multiple taco shops in town isn’t necessarily overkill. Instead, the different experiences offered from shop to shop create a market that allows a number of concepts to thrive simultaneously. “If we look at the landscape, there are lots of regional players that have done a really good job with different versions of tacos,” Torchy’s CEO G.J. Hart says. “And they’re certainly competitors for share of stomach for us. But we’re more focused on going into a market and presenting Torchy’s as a unique and different craft-casual experience. We’re going to have competition, but we’re not reluctant to go into a market as a result of that.”
And there are plenty of markets still remaining for Torchy’s and other taco chains to explore. While taco shops experienced growth rates of almost 10 percent in 2019, the category still occupies only around 15 percent of the greater Mexican fast casual segment.
Of course, this segment includes burrito heavy hitters like Chipotle, which could pose a daunting competitor for taco fast casuals. But while those in search of burritos are often looking for filling portions and total customization, taco customers are in search of an experience—one where a trio of handhelds can serve a whole world of complex, diverse flavors.
“Burritos and tacos are very different types of experiences. We’re in the elevated street taco business, and we’re not confused about that—this is a space that’s fun, entertaining, and experiential,” Hart says.