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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2004 — May — Restauratour

Upward Bound
A contemporary, relic-free interior elevates Taco John’s image in the quick-service Mexican arena.

To use a cliché, Taco John’s old look and new look are as different as night and day.

Take an online tour of Taco John's
Photography by Kingmond Young

The old Taco John’s was as authentically faux Mexican as it could be, with low-beamed ceilings, beige stucco walls, strings of peppers and odd implements hanging on the walls, and silk greenery in turquoise planters. The menu board was backlit, and the counter, plain Formica. The beige exterior, with its busy, multihued logo, looked like every other Mexican quick-service restaurant on the block.

The new Taco John’s features a palette of desert reds and golds. The front-lit menu board bursts with food photography. The counter is a cool mix of Corian, stainless steel and light wood. A neon sign and a mural of red peppers highlight the salsa bar, a feature all but hidden in older stores.

Outside, strategically placed ledge rock and LED lighting and signage make the chain a standout on the fast-food landscape, especially at night.

Taco John’s executives say that the redesign will elevate the chain’s status in the quick-service Mexican segment and that it is not a ploy to jump into the fast-casual arena.

Taco John's
Cheyenne, Wyo.
Dec. 5 , 2003
Kathy Diamond, Design Associates, Scottsdale, Ariz.
2,000 square feet
Average Check
$3.25 per person
Unit Volume
$1 million
Expansion Plans
22 in 2004

Fast casual “is an overused buzzword,” says Brian Dixon, vice president of marketing for Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Taco John’s, which has 400 franchised and six company-owned outlets in the Upper Midwest.

“You can upgrade and offer customers a better experience without calling it fast casual,” he continues. “[The experience] is not in the name; it’s in what you deliver.”

Upholding a Reputation
About three years ago, an assessment of the building’s interior and exterior led Taco John’s executives to believe that the chain’s look didn’t match its reputation for high-quality food. “We’re known for our food and wanted to set it in a bold, contemporary setting,” says President Paul Fisherkeller. Certainly, the 35-year-old chain was due for a change: Its last renovation was a spruce-up, not a full-blown remodel, in the late 1990s.

Taco John’s enlisted Kathy Diamond Design Associates of Scottsdale, Ariz., to redesign a company-owned store in Cheyenne, Wyo., as its test site.

The firm’s biggest challenge was “coming up with a look that’s different from everyone else,” says Kathy Diamond, principal.

Diamond says she and her partner, Juerg Schmid, met that challenge with shapes and colors. In an important branding move, they stripped the logo of its multiple colors and of the Taco John’s icon, a gaucho-type figure. They turned the figure into a silhouette that works as a branding vehicle at the restaurant.

Retaining the figure was crucial, Diamond says: “We kept him to tie the old to the new.”

Diamond and Schmid enhanced the drive-thru lane with a colorful menu board, ledge rock, the gaucho silhouette and attractive lighting. The touches minimize the “experience gap” between dine-in and drive-thru customers, who account for 60 percent of business. A second drive-thru window also shaves 15 seconds, or 25 percent, from drive-thru service times.

To emphasize food quality, the designers added the pepper graphic to the salsa bar and photography to the menu board. Taco John’s has always had an open kitchen, but Diamond urged managers to store boxes of wrap and other products to make it tidier. Going forward, the kitchen may be closed off a bit “to get rid of bad sightlines,” Diamond says.

The Glow of Success
Taco John’s plans to adjust the design so franchisees can choose among three levels of investment. At a cost of about $200,000, the Cheyenne prototype is the most expensive.


Super Burrito: seasoned beef and beans, lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, onions, black olives, sour cream and mild taco sauce, $2.39

Meat and Potato Burrito:
seasoned beef, Potato Olés, nacho-cheese sauce, sour cream, tomatoes and lettuce, $2.59

Potato Olés: deep-fried seasoned potato nuggets, $1.19 small, $1.49 medium, $1.79 large

Churros: pastry sticks rolled in cinnamon and sugar, 99 cents

Tres Leches Cake: sponge cake topped with milk, cream and caramel mousse and dusted with cocoa, $1.49

Changes to date include expanding the color palette to match existing flooring, thus sparing franchisees the expense and time of changing the floor; reshooting the salsa-bar graphic for a better blend of green and red; and specifying cloth exterior awnings rather than metal.

To further underscore the quality image, the chain is testing queso dip, shredded-beef entrees and fresh-made guacamole. “This is not just about a new coat of paint,” Fisherkeller says.

Dixon says there is an “accelerated reimaging schedule” for 2005, but the timetable is “impossible to guess.”

Accentuate the Positive
Even without the fine-tuning, sales and check averages at the two remodeled stores (the second is in Pierre, S.D.) are substantially ahead of trend, though Fisherkeller will not give specific figures. The return on investment is about 15 percent annually, a number he says is “very reasonable.”

According to company surveys, customer reaction has been positive as well. “They just love it,” Fisherkeller says. Customers at the remodeled stores are rating Taco John’s higher on food quality, cleanliness and value, even though the company claims such ratings were high to begin with.

Such scores “show how effective branding is,” Dixon says. “It’s a powerful halo.”

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