After about two decades in marketing, Todd Coerver was named chief operating officer of Taco Cabana in September 2012. Now, although he directs the brand, he hasn’t forgotten the importance of building a brand.
“I’ve never been this excited to work this hard,” Coerver wrote in an email interview with Clay Dover of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. “The biggest mistake companies make when they appoint a chief brand officer or a chief marketing officer is that they don’t give enough influence to the brand person. We can influence marketing strategies, promotions, creative and social media. But if operations isn’t in lock step to deliver on the promises made, you have a disconnect, and brand trust breaks down.”
Coerver joined San Antonio-based Taco Cabana in late 2009 as chief brand officer before moving to the COO role a little more than two years later. Prior to that, he had worked for 15 years at Whataburger, most recently as vice president of marketing.
He corresponded with Dover about his adjustment to the operations side of the restaurant business and how he tries to maintain the mindset of a brand-focused marketer to move Taco Cabana forward.
Watch an ad for Taco Caban's Loteria giveaway 
Why do you think more CMOs and marketing executives have been moving into CEO or COO roles?
Years ago, our chief executive Tim Taft gave me a copy of a print ad that the Wall Street Journal ran in 1993, and it featured a picture of the Roman Coliseum. The headline read, ‘And a brand wasn’t built in a day, either.’ The essence of the message was all about brand. What thoughts, feelings and emotions are evoked when your company’s name is mentioned? Parent Fiesta Restaurant Group, sister brand Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana are all led by people with brand backgrounds. It works for us because it focuses 100 percent of our efforts — marketing, training, operations, development, supply chain — on delivering the brand promise.
Taco Cabana has a lot of competitors. How do you set yourselves apart?
The Mexican-food niche is certainly a crowded one, especially in Texas. What sets Taco Cabana apart though is its unique offering of authentic, made-from-scratch recipes served up at crazy-affordable prices … and you don’t owe anyone a tip. That quality at that price with the convenience of a drive-thru is what makes Taco Cabana different and special. It’s proven by our average unit volumes versus those in the competitive set.
What among all the recent flavor introductions has struck a positive note with Taco Cabana customers lately?
The way we have more clearly defined our price-value proposition, in the form of our Favorites Under $5 and our $3 Happy Hour. People are starting to truly understand our offering of great food at a great value through these simple and impactful messaging platforms. They are responding with their repeat visits to Taco Cabana. On a parallel path, we are working hard on improving the brand experience: product consistency, order accuracy, cleanliness and hospitality. All those things that have caused the brand to stumble in the past are now where we focus our attention.
The Steak Street Tacos have been a surprise for the brand. When we introduced them a few years back, there was some concern that the concept of street tacos from Mexico was not known or familiar to the typical American consumer. But it struck at the heart of the authenticity and simplicity of true Mexican fare that we want to be known for. In other words, it was brand-right, and three years later it’s a mainstay on our menu with a very loyal following.
How has your perspective about the brand and business changed since joining the ops side?
I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the very fragile balancing act between quality, price and profit. I’ve also come to realize how incredibly difficult it is to work at a Taco Cabana restaurant. Made-from-scratch cooking, 24 hours a day, a full liquor license and a drive-thru? I’m not sure there is anyone else out there doing what we do, and now I know why. But that complexity is also what makes us unique, proud of what we do and nearly impossible for a competitor to replicate.
How do you interact with and give input to the marketing team now?
After three years of me working directly with the marketing team as CMO, they have internalized the brand strategy and have a firm grasp on the business filters I apply to decision-making. I still see everything before it goes to market, but we are typically aligned on 95 percent of the work that comes across my desk, so it’s a pretty fluid process.
Be honest, do you secretly watch Taco Cabana commercials over and over late at night and make changes?
Oh, it’s not secret that I often revisit our campaign. It can always be better and more effective. So we constantly try to learn and refine between shoots to make sure the next batch of spots is better than the previous one.
What marketing trends intrigue you, either within the restaurant industry or outside of it?
It’s exciting to see consumers getting more interested and more educated on ethnic foods. Thanks to other niche ethnic brands, the Food Network and chef-based reality shows, it’s not enough to just offer Mexican food. People now want to know what region of Mexico a particular flavor or ingredient comes from. I love it because it gives us more fertile ground to explore from a culinary perspective, knowing people are getting more adventurous with food.
What’s coming next for Taco Cabana?
This fall we are introducing our first ever peel-and-win game on the side of our cold cups. Playing off the traditional Mexican card game, Loteria, customers will have the chance to peel and win for instant prizes or use a game board to match and win in a bingo-style format. We’re giving away food, Beats headphones, tablets, $100,000, a Mexican getaway vacation and a brand new Camaro.
The bigger news for us, though, is our strategic shift toward proving the brand outside of our current footprint. The concept will be an evolved version of Taco Cabana, with the first unit set to open in Atlanta in the first quarter of 2014. If all proves out, it promises to be a game changer for us.