In the most difficult times, great food has the power to bring people together. No one knows that better than the Mexican fast-casual restaurant chain Cafe Rio Mexican Grill, who recently brought back their beloved Carne Asada dish in the midst of the pandemic, and needed to get the word out in a way that went beyond the usual piano-driven, somber montages that have come to define the summer of 2020. For a different approach, Cafe Rio Mexican Grill once again turned to their partner Funworks, and their new improv-inspired virtual collaborative process, for an unexpected campaign that offers a little levity and empathy in a difficult time, tempered by the brand’s typical quick-witted charm. Much like a sitcom, the result is a warm and funny peek into the world of one family’s enduring love of Carne Asada as they cope with the new normal.

Celebrating the return of the fan favorite dish, the campaign features each member of the family going about their daily routine with a newfound positivity, depicted in a series of :60, :30, :15 and :06 spots. Kids skip their usual classes in favor of homeschooling and bagged lunches of Carne Asada. Masks become a useful way to hold in the flavor while they eat. The father works from home, pantsless. Undeterred, the mother laughs about how the days and months blur together. Each scenario is both sharply comedic and packed with empathic insight into the realities of quarantine.

“We worked closely with the Cafe Rio Mexican Grill team to make sure the tone felt right and that the ideas could evolve as things within the world continued to change,” says Funworks CCO Craig Mangan. “From the script to the directing to the editing, we were constantly having conversations about the boundaries of the humor, showing the Carne Asada obsession as well as the absurdity of people’s ‘new normal’ in a relatable way that wasn’t making light of the hardships people are facing today.”

For Cafe Rio Mexican Grill, the collaboration with Funworks was central to rethinking their entire marketing platform for the pandemic and coming up with an authentically empathetic, but still humorous approach. “During our virtual process, we stumbled onto the idea of remembering nostalgically what life was like in 2020 pre-pandemic,” explains Mangan. “That led to playing around with the idea that maybe Carne Asada can make 2020 great again.”

Since its inception, Funworks has been defined by its signature Funworkshops, the agency’s improv-inspired process that champions open conversation and collaboration toward quickly generating engaging concepts, strategies and content. Since the pandemic forced everyone to adapt their processes, Funworks also took their Funworkshops remote while still retaining their groundbreaking approach to driving creative innovation within organizations.

Part of that involved finding the best, safest way to film the spots during the pandemic. Their solution was to not only run the production remotely, but to cast a real family and shoot the campaign in the family’s actual home. To do this, Funworks enlisted actor and comedian Regan Burns (How I Met Your Mother, Supernatural) and his family. “We really lucked out with this cast,” continues Mangan. “It was like they were a stage family, their timing and professionalism was so on-point. They all were riffing off one another and that, combined with the nimbleness of the production team, created some great moments and added a lot of energy to the project.”

This latest work was created on the heels of Funworks and Cafe Rio Mexican Grill’s “The Obsession Is Real” campaign, which celebrated the restaurant’s uniquely enthusiastic fandom. This new campaign consciously pushed those boundaries even further in the hopes of continuing to build the brand’s comedic voice and reflect their appreciation of their fans in ways that are heartfelt and authentic. “It takes a great client to really be brave in doing something that’s never been done before,” says Mangan. “But not only did we feel really confident that we could get it done, the CEO and all the executives at Cafe Rio Mexican Grill really believed in our ability to tell that story for them in a strange and difficult time, which helped us deliver something truly special.”

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