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Expanding a limited-service Mexican concept beyond its established home market might seem like a risky move—especially in Southern California. Chipotle and its competitors like Qdoba and Moe’s have become ubiquitous across the U.S., with the former setting a new standard for fast-casual dining through quality ingredients and speedy service.
But that did not dissuade Miguel’s Jr. from looking beyond its base east of Los Angeles in an area known by locals as the Inland Empire. The 14-unit fast casual recently opened its third location in Orange County, California.
While not geographically far from the original store in Costa Mesa, the three new locations are in a new market—one that is unfamiliar with the Miguel’s Jr. brand. As a way of promoting the brand to a new consumer base, the brand launched the Eat Better/Eat Traditional campaign to demonstrate what separates Miguel’s Jr. from its competitors.
“We’re challenging people to try our food and rediscover to what real, true, traditional Mexican food tastes like,” writes cofounder and recipe creator Mary Vasquez via e-mail. “We love sharing these recipes that have been in my family since I was a little girl in Mexico more than 50 years ago.”
Much of the year-long Eat Better/Eat Traditional program centers around blind taste tests. During the first Taste Ambush at the newest location in Tustin, California, 22 out of the 25 participants picked the Miguel’s Jr. burrito out of three options, Vasquez says. A few weeks later at another Orange County unit, 25 out of 30 picked it.
“We’re being very bold with this challenge and so far people like it. People are always open to try new foods and new flavors,” Vasquez says. “It’s fun to watch people take the blind taste test, not knowing which burrito is from which restaurant. One young man banged one of the burritos against the plate to show how hard it was—no, it wasn’t our burrito!”
Vasquez credits the superior flavor to high-quality ingredients and authentic Mexican recipes and cooking methods, which haven’t changed since she and her husband Mike opened the first location (named after Mike's grandfather) in 1975. Miguel's Jr. does not freeze or microwave its food—which Vasquez says kills flavor—and avoids fillers, preservatives, and hormones. The hot sauce and salsa are made fresh daily; the pinto beans are slow-cooked twice each day; and the cheese is grated daily.
To avoid compromising on quality, Vasquez says that Miguel’s Jr. will keep its expansion plans in the existing markets. After all, the tortillas, which are hand-made locally, would not fare well on a journey to the East Coast.
“We find ourselves as a big reflection of Southern California culture. It’s all about distinctive flavors, cultures, and tastes here,” Vasquez says. “People know when something’s not real. Miguel’s Jr.’s food is as real as it gets—I wouldn’t serve it otherwise.”
By Nicole Duncan