Located above the West End store in St. Louis Park, Taco John’s is reimagining tacos and how to make them.
The company opened a new state-of-the-art test kitchen last month, where chefs and researchers are developing new recipes and experimenting with new gadgets. There’s a taco conveyor belt to help fry taco shells to the optimum temperature, and a special refrigerator that puts the restaurant’s famous “potato oil” in a basket that resembles a coin dispenser.
“One of the ways we think we will continue to be successful in the future is through extensive product testing,” Taco John Chief Marketing Officer Barry Westrum said during a tour of the space. “Product development is an art and a science, and we can have science facilities. [in] Get real-time consumer feedback on new products, programs and flavors. “
The test kitchen is part of the 20,000-square-foot restaurant support center that Taco John created in the office above the West End store.
The center currently has about 30 employees, with room for more to help run the chain’s operations, supply chain, marketing and technology. Taco John’s main headquarters remain in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Minnesota has the largest concentration of Taco John stores, with nearly half of the brand’s restaurants located within a four-hour drive of Minneapolis.
Taco John’s will open a store next month in Burnsville and Egan, both of which are among the few stores owned by the company, not franchisees.
These locations will help spearhead the adoption of a variety of new restaurant technology and device capabilities, such as a new cloud-based commerce platform still in development that will integrate everything from menu displays to staff schedules.
The company chose the St. Louis Park location because of the convenience it offers employees, who have mostly returned to their offices. “We really like this area because it has retail, restaurants, etc.,” Westroom said.
In early 2020, before the pandemic, Taco John set up a temporary office in the Twin Cities that it intended to include a test kitchen, but the pandemic disrupted the plan.
Over the past two years, Taco John’s, like many other fast-casual restaurants, has seen an increase in drive-thru and delivery orders. Taco John’s is exploring more drive-thru restaurants due to demand. It currently has two in South Dakota.
“From the pandemic, we’ve learned that we can do as much business with drive-throughs as we did pre-pandemic restaurants and drive-throughs,” said Jim Creel, CEO of Taco John.
Competitor Taco Bell also opened a drive-thru store in Brooklyn Park this summer.
Earlier this year, Taco John’s launched a new points-based loyalty program based on dollars spent that takes delivery into account to replace its old visit-based program. Since the change, the number of loyalty points transactions has increased by a third and users have grown by 10%.
By the end of the year, the company will open 16 stores, the most since 2006. It plans to continue to open more than 20 stores annually for the next three years.
Sales continued to grow during the pandemic. Taco John’s same-store sales rose 4.3% from 2019 to 2020, 6.2% in 2021, and 4.6% so far this year.
If it weren’t for construction supply delays and a shortage of contractors, Taco John’s would have opened more restaurants, Creel said. Supply chain disruptions have also resulted in reduced availability of some commodities and increased costs for common ingredients such as chicken breast, Chief Financial Officer Richard Bundy said. The company has also faced challenges finding labor.
Its test kitchen, which opened in October, shows improvements the company plans to eventually roll out to all of its locations. It has found ways to reduce heat and humidity in the kitchen with new appliances. Technological advancements, such as machines that help keep eggs and tortillas warm, help preserve the quality of food and reduce the precious time it takes to prepare it.
“Our consumers are interested in a high-quality product that is different from other similar products,” Westrum said. “That’s what we continue to focus on.”