Like a tropical storm, many different elements came together in 2013 to create a standout year for Fiesta Restaurant Group, parent company to fast-casual brands Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana. After years of climbing sales and store counts, tinkering with the store design and menu, and strategic growth and marketing initiatives, both brands landed on the Contenders list for the first time, Pollo Tropical at No. 62, Taco Cabana at No. 64.

But while the two brands share a parent company, they don’t share many other resources or even markets. Not yet, anyway.

For the past few years, the 26-year-old Pollo Tropical has focused on simplifying its operations, trimming less-efficient menu items, streamlining its drive thru, and making the most of its growing popularity in the catering and home meal replacement realms. The brand opened 12 new stores domestically last year and saw 2013 sales increase 6 percent over 2012.

“Our units average $2.7 million a year, and that’s in lunch and dinner business only. We have the same menu all day, and our check average is $10,” says Danny Meisenheimer, COO of Pollo Tropical. The drive thru accounts for 65–68 percent of its business, he says, dominating mostly lunch traffic; at dinner, whole-chicken family meals are the popular choice.

Pollo Tropical’s Caribbean-inspired menu mix is centered on citrus-marinated grilled chicken and other freshly grilled meats. The brand’s sauces bring an original zest to the menu and include a Pineapple Rum glaze and a chili-pepper-packed Spicy Poyo Poyo sauce.

Catering to the need for ease and portability in the fast-casual segment, Pollo Tropical’s menu features a line of wraps, sandwiches, and bowl-based meals. Called “TropiChops,” the bowls offer ease and portability by layering protein, rice or lettuce, beans, vegetables, and sauces in a bowl.

“Our food transports very, very well. The whole-chicken family meals look the same when you get them home as when they leave our kitchens, and customers tell us they feel like they get a lot of food for relatively little money,” Meisenheimer says. “We’ve added more boneless chicken breast sandwiches and wraps for eating on the run, and we’ve made the TropiChops more and more customizable over the years, because that’s what customers want.”

Caribbean influences extend to Pollo Tropical’s tagline, “Life is Better Under the Palm,” and references to tropical beach vacations, island breezes, and waves of flavor abound. In August 2013, Pollo Tropical celebrated its 100th company-owned location in Alpharetta, Georgia, by hosting a 12-hour Grand Opening Beach Party.

As of late 2013, Miami-based Pollo Tropical had positioned more than 100 locations in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. The company plans to open 20–22 new restaurants in 2014, with Texas being a key piece to its expansion plan—Pollo Tropical is plotting stores in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.

As Pollo Tropical moves west into Texas, its sister brand, Taco Cabana, is setting sights on points east, in Florida and Georgia, where Pollo Tropical is well established. As the two Fiesta Restaurant Group brands overlap territories, says Tim Taft, CEO of Fiesta Restaurant Group Inc., they can combine resources and learn from each other.

“We’re able to do media buys for the two brands together, and use the combined experience to make better site selections and operational decisions,” Taft says.

From baking authentic flour tortillas in-house to celebrating the chain’s roots as a neighborhood taqueria, Taco Cabana has been ahead of the Mexican fast-casual curve since it opened in 1978.

“Last year was big for us because we were focused on launching Cabana Grill, which is a slightly more upscale version of Taco Cabana,” says Todd Coerver, COO of the 170-unit Taco Cabana. “Building a new prototype also coincides with a three-year remodel that touched all of our stores. Across all locations, we are synched up with a new look and brand consistency that creates a more contemporary Mexican presentation. We are reset for the next decade.”

Along with the new concept, the remodels, and adding five new units in 2013, Taco Cabana also upgraded its service style so that customers order at the counter and have their meals delivered to their table. “It creates a more relaxed eating environment, with no numbers being called out, and guests can relax and remain seated,” Coerver says. “It’s a small change that didn’t add to our operational costs, but has made a big difference in the overall guest experience. ”

With other Mexican brands finally waking up to breakfast’s big potential, Taco Cabana has been a step ahead there, too. The concept is well established in the morning daypart, serving breakfast from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. and offering seven different varieties of breakfast tacos that cross-utilize other daypart ingredients, such as the barbacoa brisket, served with eggs in freshly made tortillas and priced at $1.09 each.

“Breakfast is our fastest-growing daypart, and we’ve benefited from all the noise about other brands adding breakfast. We’ve always had it, and ours is unique,” Coerver says. “We also offer a 12-taco deal packaged in a pink pizza box, and it’s become a huge seller for people to bring to the office or sales people to have for sales calls.” The breakfast business has been built on the power of word of mouth, he adds, as well as through social media momentum.

Under Taft’s direction, Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana have streamlined their operations by focusing on staffing priorities and menu efficiencies. But that’s not to say that menu innovation is on the back burner at either brand.

“We’re going to change our dinner rolls to a sugar-cane-based product that fits well with the brand,” Pollo Tropical’s Meisenheimer says. “And we have a ‘Tropical Light’ line of five meals under 500 calories, plus a line of Caribbean fruit ‘Refre-scas’ beverages we are testing.”

Meanwhile, at Taco Cabana, Coerver says his menu development strategy is to test at least one or two items a year. “We are always on the lookout for something to drive the wow factor,” he says.

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Fast Casual, Growth, Story, Pollo Tropical, Taco Cabana