Focus, over-communication, and flexibility. Among other initiatives, those are the things currently driving the decisions of one chain — Austin, TX-based Torchy’s Tacos — as it navigates a pandemic-era restaurant industry. And whether that means slimming down the menu or creating an ad hoc tech system to handle neighborhood delivery orders, the mid-level chain says the results of its sudden shift to off-premises has been better than anyone could have imagined.
“I would say it’s surpassed everyone’s expectations with how well our operating partners have adjusted,” Chief Marketing Officer Scott Hudler said on the phone this week. Citing a phrase the folks at Torchy’s are using a lot these days, he adds, “We’re building the plane as we fly.”
Torchy’s operates 74 units across five states: Texas, where it was founded, Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Since it first opened in 2006, the chain has become known not just for its queso but also its cheeky, at times irreverent sense of humor and its punchy tagline: “Damn good tacos.” Now one of thousands of restaurants trying to survive a simultaneous pandemic and industry meltdown, Torchy’s has quickly had to become damn good at off-premises operations, too.
Hudler told me that pre-COVID-19, Torchy’s typically saw two thirds of its sales from dine-in traffic and one third from off-premises orders. As it has for many, that changed in a matter of days as states mandated shelter-in-place orders and restaurants found themselves having to quickly pivot to 100 percent off-premies orders. An existing partnership with DoorDash has helped, but it’s just one tactic Torchy’s latched onto in order to transition.
Adding new products is another. Torchy’s is among those chains tweaking their menus to include family-style packs that feed four to six people. Hudler said the chain has also introduced alcohol delivery, and in Texas, a full Margarita kit that arrives with both booze and all the elements to recreate the chain’s signature drink at home. Hudler says this item, especially, has been popular with consumers.
And as far as actually getting the food to customers, the introduction of curbside pickup and drive-thru lanes has been a big step for the chain. “Our concept wasn’t really designed for that,” Hudler says of drive-thru. Operators quickly changed their mindset once the dining rooms closed down, either retrofitting existing drive-thru windows that had never been used or creating new ones on the fly. Curbside order and pickup, equipped with iPad-carrying staff who walk to customers’ cars, is another addition. “We almost look like a Sonic,” Hudler jokes. “[Customers] pull up and we can take your order and bring it to your cards. We just need some roller skates.”
He adds that part of this flexibility can be attributed to Torchy’s management structure. Rather than general managers, the chain’s store operators are actually managing partners who receive a portion of the operating profits each month. “They’re going to take a much different approach to working through some of these challenges and figuring it out,” he says. Another way of putting it: they have skin in the game and are willing to try new moves if there’s a chance of saving/improving the business during an economic crisis.
Which brings us to Torchy’s neighborhood delivery concept, an initiative born from talking to customers about what they want in terms of service during this time. Through the program, customers can order and pay for food ahead of time, then go to a designated drop-off point in their neighborhood and pick the food up. “You literally go to a central meeting location in your neighborhood and we drop the food off there to you right away,” says Hudler.
To technologically pull this off, Hudler says they are using a number of different technologies (“we MacGyver’d them together”) but noted it will soon be “a more sophisticated system.” He adds that this neighborhood delivery program, which doesn’t rely on DoorDash or any other third-party service, is also a way to personalize the guest relationship right now. “We are a group of managing partners who are small business people in the communities and we think that the neighborhood delivery program really helped up solidify that.” Though he’s quick to add that Torchy’s doesn’t plan on becoming either a restaurant tech company or a delivery logistics operation.
Hudler made a point during our conversation to underscore the safety aspect of all these off-premises operations. Currently, Torchy’s requires all staff to wear masks and gloves on the job and adopt more rigorous cleaning processes. These, like many other policies, will likely carry on even when the pandemic has subsided.
And looking forward, Hudler isn’t alone in pointing out that once dining rooms re-open, fewer consumers may want to actually sit in them. (They may operate at reduced capacity, too.) By his reckoning, things like curbside pickup and contactless delivery will continue well into the future. Meanwhile, the old two thirds dining room, one third off-premises sales divide on which the company operated previously may wind up being more of a 50/50 split.
Pre-pandemic, Torchy’s had a five-year plan to open between 160 and 165 new restaurants across 17 different states. Hudler says that despite everything, the chain is still on track with this goal. “We feel like we’ve done a number of things to make sure that when we come out of this, we come out a stronger brand and that we are ready to pick that growth back up.”
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