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GJ Hart of Torchy's Tacos explains the brand's strategy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Torchy’s Tacos CEO GJ Hart on a return to innovation and resiliency

The ‘craft-casual’ taco chain has supported managing partners and prioritized safety during the pandemic

GJ Hart, CEO of Torchy’s Tacos, has been working in the restaurant industry for over four decades, beginning at the Shenandoah Valley Poultry Company while he was a student in college and culminating as CEO of Torchy’s Tacos, where he has been since 2018. Hart has also been CEO at California Pizza Kitchen and Texas Roadhouse, where he led the brands through other tough times, including recessions, which he feels has prepared him for this pandemic. Torchy’s Tacos is based in Austin, Texas, and has 81 units across six states.

Here’s Hart’s story of resiliency and innovation:

“Over my nearly four decades in the industry, I’ve led restaurant brands through some tough times before, and while the challenges of this pandemic are certainly unique and unprecedented, I’ve learned that quick, thoughtful action, transparency, and a relentless focus on innovation, safety and the guest experience are the keys to resiliency, which is what we are focused on at Torchy’s.  

It’s been devastating to see the effects of COVID-19 on individuals and families, as well as within the restaurant industry. I’ve always felt it is my personal responsibility to provide not just a great place for guests to eat and drink, but also a great place to work. We feel fortunate that we have been able to reopen our restaurants and get our teams back to work safely. I think this pandemic has shown how resilient this industry and its people are.

At Torchy’s, our teams worked incredibly quickly to make necessary pivots to ensure our success through the pandemic – moving the business to 100% takeout, delivery and curbside pickup in a matter of days when dining rooms across the country were required to close, introducing new innovations to bring the Torchy’s experience home for our guests, and reopening our restaurants in a safe manner once we were able to do so.

One thing that makes us unique, and what really proved beneficial during this time, has been our managing partner program that pays our restaurant general managers 7% of operating profit plus base pay. This really instills a sense of everyone being in this together, that we all have a responsibility to see our business succeed and make sure that safety and the guest experience are top of mind even during challenging times. While like many restaurants during this time we had to make some tough short-term decisions in order to preserve our long-term business, we feel we are in a position to emerge a stronger brand than ever once the pandemic has passed.   

When the pandemic first began, we took steps to quickly pivot our business model to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances, adjusting to a temporary model that was 100% off-premise orders from March until May, which included introducing curbside pickup at a majority of our locations for the first time. Now, with our restaurants reopened, our guests’ and team members’ safety remains our top priority.

gj-hart.jpgWe have a number of safety precautions in place, including frequent cleaning and sanitizing of the restaurants, continued glove and mask use by our team members and social-distancing accommodations inside the restaurants – such as blocking off certain tables and seating areas. We also continue to offer takeout, contactless delivery and curbside pickup with the option to order and pre-pay on our website so that our guests can enjoy Torchy’s in whatever way they’re most comfortable.

Torchy’s is focused on rethinking the guest experience in a post-COVID world and how we’ll continue to differentiate by focusing on key operational upgrades to our business that were already in the works. We are looking at our restaurant footprint and design – whether that means more patio seating, drive-thrus, frictionless takeout as well as upgrading packaging to enhance the takeout experience. We are also focused on increasing our speed of service in restaurants and for takeout and delivery. Finally, we’ll continue to differentiate ourselves as what we call a ‘craft-casual’ brand through our food quality, creativity and menu innovation, such as with our popular Taco of the Month feature that our guests look forward to and other quality cues like squeezing fresh limes for our margaritas and making tortillas fresh inside the restaurants.

While these are definitely challenging times and there will be changes and challenges ahead, we will continue to be transparent, authentic and communicative with our guests. Our goal is to emerge stronger and more innovative than ever. We look forward to continuing to serve people our ‘damn good’ tacos however they’d like to get them, whether back in our restaurants or through delivery, takeout and curbside. So far, the response we have received from our guests and our teams has been extremely positive and we are encouraged as we look ahead.”

This is part of our Stories from the Front Lines series. 

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