Rusty Taco’s humble roots as a family-owned taco stand operating out of a converted gas station in Dallas have blossomed over the past decade-plus into a rapidly growing fast-casual Mexican brand. Founded by husband-and-wife team Rusty and Denise Fenton and business partner Steve Dunn, Rusty Taco gained more public visibility when it was purchased by Buffalo Wild Wings in 2014 and subsequently adopted into Inspire Brands when Arby’s parent company acquired the wing chain 2018.
But now, Rusty Taco is starting a fresh chapter of menu innovation, technology investment, and franchise development under new ownership after Inspire Brands sold the company to Famous Dave’s parent company Gala Capital Partners at the end of 2022.
“Three months into the [new ownership] and it’s working really well,” said Brendan Mauri, president of Rusty Taco. “Gala Capital specializes in growing brands of our size, so they’ll be able to give us more personalized attention and resources. Also, we have counterparts at other brands that we can talk to and bounce ideas off of.”
So what makes Rusty Taco special? With a simple menu of street tacos, homemade queso, guac, and salsas, and margaritas, the brand feels more like a local taco joint than a burgeoning chain, and that brand association is purposeful. The new store prototype just starting to roll out is worlds away from the ‘typical’ chain aesthetic; it features a whimsical urban design, bright colors, designated order pickup areas, and of course a full bar, where the margaritas are made with “cheap/delicioso” tequila, according to the menu.
“Our new prototype was designed around the lens of keeping that neighborhood taco stand feel,” Mauri said. “We’ve drawn inspiration from looking at all sorts of neighborhood taco stands around the country, and even outside the country. A lot of it is in the design, but we also worked really hard with franchisees to support them being a part of the community.”
As the Rusty Taco brand looks to expand its horizons and reach beyond 35 locations in 12 states, the company’s relationship with franchisees is crucial. Rusty Taco is looking into new franchisee relationships in its Dallas hometown and will also be entering the Atlanta market this year. Another crucial avenue for Rusty Taco’s growth will be nontraditional locations in airports and sports stadiums, which have become increasingly popular ways for emerging and mid-sized brands to make headway in new markets.
On the restaurant innovation side, Rusty Taco is working on a new and improved loyalty program and an enhanced app, which should be rolling out by the end of 2023. The brand is also focused on menu innovation, with its take on the trending dish, birria tacos, coming to Rusty Taco menus soon.
“We worked really closely with our franchisees to make sure we would bring something that was made in-house with the right flavors and was easy enough to execute in our model,” Mauri said. “We truly believe that staying true to our expertise in tacos is crucial. We want to make sure we’re keeping things simple and executing tacos of the highest quality. It just makes for a better experience for everyone.”