Beyond just the size of Tijuana Flats, much has changed since the 2007 reversal. Firstly, AUA Private Equity Partners infused an undisclosed investment into the chain four years ago. Through its affiliates, the firm now owns a majority stake in Tijuana Flats. When Wright was hired, the company also announced the appointments of Louie Psallidas as chief financial officer and Steve Culbert as SVP of operations. Psallidas arrived from Uno Restaurant Holdings, the parent company of 100-plus unit Uno Pizzeria & Grill. During his tenure, Psallidas held CEO, president, and CFO titles. Culbert most recently worked as VP of operations at Au Bon Pain. Culbert’s prior stops include regional VP with Einstein Noah Restaurant Group and managing partner for Bloomin’ Brands’ Carrabba’s.
The revamped leadership was brought on to support Tijuana Flats’ “next chapter of growth,” the brand said.
Tijuana Flats attended a franchise conference recently, Wright says, where it talked about what it’s calling the restart of its franchising system. There was no shortage of attention.
But before Tijuana Flats puts ink to development deals, it wants to make sure it continues a modernization process that’s been center to AUA Private Equity Partners’ investment.
This includes refining Tijuana Flats’ prototype—building type, design, functionality—and progressing through a systemwide digital transformation. Just this week, Tijuana Flats expanded delivery through DoorDash to more than 100 locations.
Tijuana Flats, founded in Winter Park, Florida, has locations in North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and one in Indiana, but remains a Sunshine State-heavy chain. The whitespace is obvious. But so is the cautionary tale.
“We want to protect the cultural side of the brand,” Wright says. “Whether our guests are using the brand here in Florida today or if it’s in another state, we want to make sure that’s really recognized by consumers.”
“I think that’s such a differentiator for the brand,” he adds. “We’ve got to make sure we do this in a way that protects the brand.”
Wright has worked his way through eight different companies during 35 years in the restaurant business. It just so happens it’s been split evenly between quick and full service. Fittingly, Tijuana Flats’ unique proposition is its hybrid nature. The brand considers itself a “fast casual plus.” There are no trashcans in the dining rooms so customers won’t mistakenly bus their own tables. The food is prepped from scratch every morning.