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Nation's Restaurant News 2023 Power List Darren Epsy Taco Bell
After decades in the quick-service segment, Darren Espy now works in a unit that hosts DJs, private events and weddings.

Darren Espy loves the juggling act of overseeing the busiest Taco Bell in the world

At the Las Vegas Taco Bell Cantina, general manager coordinates DJs, private events and weddings

The Taco Bell Cantina on the Las Vegas strip is one of, if not the, busiest in the entire Taco Bell system. In 2022, the restaurant topped $8 million in sales.

The location includes a traditional Taco Bell menu, as well as a full bar and its own merchandise line. It hosts DJs, private events and weddings. To date, the location has hosted more than 400 weddings in the chapel on the second floor. It’s certainly a lot to juggle, but general manager Darren Espy has this whole juggling bit down by now.

Espy has worked in the quick-service segment his entire career, starting at KFC in high school in Minnesota. He stayed with the brand while a student at Arizona State University, where he studied restaurant and hotel management. While there, he took advantage of an opportunity to move up within the KFC system and stayed with the brand for 20 years.

“I worked my way up to the area coach level — did it all from team member, washing dishes, helping customers, GM, training manager. One year I think I trained 24 managers,” Espy said, adding that he was “never a school person” and liked the functionality of restaurants. So he stuck around, eventually leaving KFC for an opportunity as an operations manager at three different restaurants — Del Taco, Quiznos and Popeyes. During the Great Recession his company was acquired by another local company and he decided he didn’t want to work for them. He landed at the Cantina in Vegas about seven years ago.

“In the restaurant business, a lot of people are connected. I knew somebody who knew somebody,” he said. “[The Cantina] was a surprise in the beginning because it was completely different from your typical brick-and-mortar restaurant.”

But he found a cadence and grew sales year-over-year to the point where it is now. Turns out, after managing all those restaurants for so many years, Espy prefers the diversity and excitement of the Vegas Cantina.

“One day we’ll have a private party, the next day we’ll do weddings. You literally meet people from all over the world,” Espy said. “When you’re in a restaurant management position, it gets kind of redundant day after day, but this store brings out music, DJs, you’re serving slushy drinks to people who are here to have fun, you meet people from all over the world. They’re coming here to enjoy themselves. That’s what keeps me in the game. It keeps me excited.”

So excited, in fact, he said it would be hard to go back to a “regular store with a drive-thru” after this experience. It’s worth noting that the Vegas Cantina is part of Diversified Restaurant Group’s portfolio. DRG is the franchisee that initially came up with the Cantina concept for Taco Bell, among many other ideas.

“I love the flexibility this company gives us just to make these unique experiences. We’ll bring in showgirls, ice sculptures, photo booths; we did a drag show,” Espy said. “I just think it’s the newness and keeping it fresh, and that’s one thing Taco Bell and this organization has grasped. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you want to try something new? Let’s do it.’ And 99% of the time, it’s spectacular.”

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. Espy said labor continues to be pressured and his concept has to compete with casinos, which makes it even harder on a seasonal basis.

“During the pandemic, it was really, really bad. Not everything was 100% open, and our sales went through the roof, but we were doing it with a lot less people,” he said.

Accordingly, his top priority has turned to recruitment and retention. He tries to recruit and promote from within and facilitates recognition programs, for instance. Development is critical and Espy follows a “work smarter, not harder” blueprint. As such, Rich Wierzbowski, DRG’s VP of operations, said Espy perfectly fits what DRG looks for in a GM.

“We’re looking for people with the right integrity and right heart because it’s difficult to train those types of characteristics,” he said. “What’s really stood out with him is he’s a developer and he’s very disciplined in his leadership. He looks to develop the people around him.”

The labor picture is better now than it was three years ago, with about 12 more people in the Vegas store and a stronger applicant flow. Espy is looking to keep that positive momentum and is now folding more soft skills into his management approach, noting that things have significantly changed since his career began.

“The hard part about management is we’re all human and when people aren’t as nice as they should be to us, it’s hard to handle that,” Espy said. “When I started in 1986, it was my way or the highway. If you didn’t like it, there’s the door. As the years progressed, things changed, especially after 2020. I’m not going to write you up, but I’m going to work with you to make your life easier and better. And I think that’s a huge reason somebody’s not going to leave you for a quarter or 50 cents, because they know this guy’s got my back.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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