TJF USA LLC, the parent company to the fast-casual Tijuana Flats brand, recently named interim CEO Rick Van Warner to the position permanently, the company confirmed Friday.
Van Warner succeeded Larry Ryback as CEO at the Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Tex-Mex concept, which has 135 units in six states. Ryback left the company in February to become CEO of Grapevine, Texas-based Cotton Patch Café Inc., a casual-dining concept.
Van Warner was named to the interim post in March and as CEO in August. He has served on Tijuana Flat’s board for the past 10 years, a position he assumed after consulting with the brand since 2001.
“This is a concept that I’ve been in love with for many, many years,” said Van Warner in an interview. “I love the spirit and the team. It’s been really exciting to take on a bigger role with this group.”
Van Warner previously worked with the Orlando, Fla.-based Parquet Group and its consulting and crisis management practice. Before Parquet, he was a communications executive with Darden Restaurants Inc. and editor of Nation’s Restaurant News from the late 1980s to 1996.
Van Warner said he especially liked Tijuana Flats positioning.
The brand’s locations generally cover about 2,500 square feet in end-cap locations with patio seating, Van Warner noted. Units also offer a hot sauce bar with varying degrees of spice intensity.
“The service is much higher than a typical fast-casual,” he said. “We have very engaged employees who engage with guests. That’s the secret sauce. … Casual-dining friends would tell me they got more table touches than they would get in a full-service [restaurant].”
Per person check averages range from $9 to $12, and units offer beer and wine and some, where allowed, feature margaritas among the adult beverages.
Tijuana Flats, founded in 1995 in Winter Park, Fla., has 18 franchised units and the remaining 117 are company-owned. They are located in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
The brand has been owned since 2015 by New York-based AUA Private Equity Partners LLC.
Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless