It’s not exactly unusual for a concept to evolve from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar location. It may be unusual, however, for a concept to do so in the way Torchy’s Tacos has.
CEO Mike Rypka founded the concept as a single food truck in Austin, Texas, in 2006, and there are now over 110 locations in 14 states. Torchy’s has never franchised and doesn’t plan to anytime soon. It has simply planted flags with one or two locations in larger markets, like Phoenix and Memphis, and then backfilled once brand awareness was solidified. This has been Rypka’s approach since about 2010, when he realized “this thing might have some teeth” because a location positioned near “the big boys” —Whole Foods and Costco — was wildly successful.
“That’s when we started to expand. We went to Dallas, then Houston, then smaller markets in some college towns in Texas. From there, we got into Colorado, then Oklahoma. It’s just sort of been this natural spread as we’ve gone through the years,” Rypka said. “One thing we’ve done a good job at is expansion. It’s just something that’s been natural to us.”
It’s been natural because it’s been customer-driven — a word-of-mouth, grassroots growth path that started with a single customer at its Austin food truck declaring, “damn, these tacos are good.” Torchy’s has since adopted a mission statement striving to be “damn good,” and adhering to that is how the company aspires to differentiate itself in a growing taco category.
“We’ve got ‘damn good’ in our logo, our mission statement. It’s burnt into our DNA, this culture about being damn good in all the things we do, being food quality, hospitality, making sure we’re taking care of the guest. I think when we focus and do that, we win,” Rypka said.
That food quality piece is a priority in the scratch-made chain, he adds, pointing to several awards won, including “Best Taco in America” from Delish.
“We’re not a commissary model. Our food is very fresh, and we really focus in on those flavors and freshness,” Rypka said. “One other thing I think separates us is we’ve got a laid back fast casual atmosphere with a full-service bar. It’s a real good mix between fast casual and casual dining and I think people can use us in a bunch of different ways, whether it’s takeout or to come in and sit down and have a margarita with your friends. We check a lot of different boxes for occasions.”
Torchy’s plan is to leverage these attributes as it continues to grow, though Rypka notes that growth will be somewhat conservative given the macroeconomic uncertainties. The company is also making some adjustments to its kitchen design and tech stack to create more efficiencies and has added features like to-go shelves and pickup windows in some locations. That said, the company is careful not to stray from its mission statement.
“You have to be careful around overcorrecting too much. You still have to know what your customers really want and what got us to the dance in the first place,” he said.
Rypka is forecasting a 10–15% annual growth rate for the brand, targeting larger markets like Atlanta and Washington, D.C., in a slow, steady, mostly contiguous pattern.
“I think any faster than that and you’re going to get yourself in trouble. You can’t grow past your people, so we will really make sure, from a bench perspective, we focus a lot of time and energy making sure who our talent is to support that growth,” Rypka said.
That talent piece is a big part of the reason Rypka wanted to get into this business in the first place, and it will continue to be his north star as Torchy’s expands.
“The plan was never to be this nationwide restaurant chain. I just wanted a brick-and-mortar place where I could provide some opportunities for people and serve food I was passionate about,” he said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to develop our people. The more we expand, the more opportunities I’m able to create for folks.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]