The Untold Truth Of Tijuana Flats
This article was published on Mashed on 9/22/21.
As the Tex-Mex restaurant boom continues to take the country by storm, per Statista, a number of chains have blossomed into household names. They’ve also naturally become some pretty serious competitors with each other on the market. One such company experiencing increasing prominence is Tijuana Flats. What began as a single restaurant in Florida in 1995 has exploded to more than 100 locations throughout the Sunshine State, not to mention a few other outposts found as far north as Indiana.
So, what makes this Tex-Mex chain so special? How has it been able to stand out from the vast array of competitors? The answer lies somewhere with a perfect combination of fresh food made of the highest-quality ingredients and a laid-back, “non-chain” atmosphere that emphasizes fun and community. But surely, there are some other secrets to its success. From its inexperienced founder and multi-year franchising hiatus to its signature line of hot sauces and penchant for celebrating its customers with free food, here is the untold truth of Tijuana Flats.
Tijuana Flats was started by a recent college grad
In the mid-1990s, Brian Wheeler was a newly graduated alum of the University of Central Florida. He was working as a UPS driver when he had the idea to open his own burrito store (via Orlando Sentinel). There were only two problems: he had neither money nor restaurant experience. He began by selling his car and getting his father to loan him $20,000. With the money, Wheeler set up the first Tijuana Flats restaurant in a strip mall not too far from his alma mater.
Running a restaurant, however, was a serious learning experience. “It was great all the way up until closing time,” Wheeler told the Orlando Sentinel, “because I never realized all the hard work that goes into closing a restaurant at night.” Despite his inexperience, the Tex-Mex store was successful enough that Wheeler opened a second and third location. That’s when the business became too much for him to handle alone. “I thought I had to be there all the time and muscle my way through to make things happen,” he recalled. “You can do that at one restaurant, but what happens when you have two or three and can’t be there?”
Wheeler caught a life preserver when retired restaurant executive Camp Fitch walked into one of the restaurants and was immediately impressed. In 1999, Fitch became a partner in the business and implemented systems that got the chain back on track. Tijuana Flats was off and running.
Tijuana Flats was modeled after an iconic Gainesville, Florida restaurant
Tijuana Flats founder Brian Wheeler had a perfectly clear vision for what he wanted his restaurant to be long before he ever started planning the details of its debut. That’s because the restaurant already existed, more or less. According to the Orland Sentinel, Wheeler modeled Tijuana Flats after Burrito Brothers, a popular Tex-Mex eatery (and one of his favorite places to eat) located near the University of Florida main campus.
Burrito Brothers Taco Co. opened in Gainesville, Florida in the late 1970s, per WUFT. With good food and a laid-back feel, it quickly became a popular spot with college kids and locals, alike. “It didn’t matter if it was cold or raining. You just went and got what you wanted,” one frequent customer told WUFT. “It’s just a little bit of heaven in your day.”
Unfortunately, decreasing revenue spurred on by nearby construction projects forced the iconic restaurant to close its doors in 2017 after 40 years of business. On the bright side, customers can find a similar dining experience at the more than 100 Tijuana Flats locations throughout the state of Florida.
Tijuana Flats is now one of the largest Mexican chains in the U.S.
Tijuana Flats had the humblest of beginnings. The first location was in a strip mall, opened by Brian Wheeler, then an inexperienced 20-something-year-old who had to borrow the necessary money from his father. But what Wheeler did have on his side was timing. The fast-casual Tex-Mex industry that has come to dominate the country’s restaurant scene was just taking on steam in the 1990s when Tijuana Flats opened its doors. “Looking back, I was in the right place at the right time,” Wheeler told the Orlando Sentinel. “Chipotle and Qdoba were thriving on the West Coast.”
Since then, Tijuana Flats has expanded to more than 120 locations and the business continues to grow. According to Restaurant Business, the chain brought in $147 million in sales in 2019. That puts it among the top 20 U.S. chains in the ultra-competitive Mexican food industry. It also makes Tijuana Flats one of the country’s 250 largest restaurant chains of any kind. It’s even more impressive considering that, opposed to nationwide chains Taco Bell and Chipotle, Tijuana Flats is almost entirely isolated to just one state. The chain has one location in Virginia, two in Indiana, and five in North Carolina. The remaining 100-plus stores are all in Florida.
Tijuana Flats stopped franchising for 13 years
From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, Tijuana Flats slowly but surely expanded its footprint with new locations. These consisted of both corporate-owned and franchise stores. In 2007, however, the company switched up its business model and stopped accepting new franchisees, according to Franchise Times. Instead, it focused on opening more corporate restaurants as well as working with franchise owners already in the system.
The move apparently worked, as Tijuana Flats grew to more than 100 corporate locations and nearly two dozen franchise stores. But after a 13-year hiatus, Tijuana Flats announced in 2020 that it’s getting back into the franchising game (via Franchising.com). “We would really like to see Tijuana Flats grow to its full potential,” said Eric Taylor, Tijuana Flats Vice President of Development. “It’s a strong brand that has been mostly corporately owned for all of these years, but we feel like with franchising that we can grow the brand the right way.” The company has already entered into its first franchise agreement to develop a new Tijuana Flats location in Panama City, Florida.
Every Tijuana Flats location has unique, hand-painted murals
Believe it or not, the first thing you notice upon entering a Tijuana Flats restaurant likely won’t be the irresistible smell of burritos, quesadillas, and chimichangas. Instead, it will probably be the décor. Every location is adorned with brightly colored, hand-painted murals unique to that particular store.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, many of these works of art are done by street artist Nate Baranowski, who specializes in trompe-l’œil artworks that mimic three-dimensional images (though many Tijuana Flats murals appear to be more standard, though still awesome two-dimensional works).
The murals are meant to pay homage to the restaurant’s local community. The chain’s Indiana locations in Fishers and Noblesville, Indiana, for example, sport murals featuring race cars and farmland with the Indianapolis skyline in the background. And in May, Tijuana Flats remodeled its Longwood, Florida location, complete with a brand-new mural featuring a native bald cypress tree. According to QSR, Longwood was home to the largest such tree until it burned down in 2012. In its honor, the mural depicts a scientist trying to re-grow the tree with a hot sauce-based formula.
Tijuana Flats loves to give away free food
If you’re a believer that there is nothing better in life than free food — and who isn’t? — then Tijuana Flats will be your new favorite restaurant. The chain never ceases to find an opportunity to give its customers free grub. Tijuana Flats kicked off the food giveaways in 2021 with a special Super Bowl promotion. On February 6 and 7, guests were offered a free gallon drink as well as a free dessert with the purchase of a taco or burrito take-home meal kit. Catering orders for 10 or more people also received free drinks and desserts. Later that month, Tijuana Flats celebrated Presidents Day by letting kids eat for free with the purchase of an adult entrée (via QSR).
The free food offerings haven’t slowed down since February. Already in 2021, Tijuana Flats has given away such items as free side dips on National Chip and Dip Day, free kid’s meals during Easter weekend, free entrees for teachers and nurses during their respective appreciation weeks, free appetizers for graduates each Sunday during graduation season, and free queso on, you guessed it, National Queso Day. If all this wasn’t enough, Tijuana Flats just wrapped up a sweepstakes promotion in which customers had the chance to win free tacos for a year.
Tijuana Flats has its own line of hot sauces
One of the first additions Tijuana Flats founder Brian Wheeler made to his growing restaurant was a “hot bar”, where customers could add the hot sauce of their choosing (via Orlando Sentinel). After all, what’s a burrito without some hot sauce? But Wheeler wanted to go one step further and create a signature hot sauce for the restaurant. After some trial and error (and enlisting some professional help) the recipe was ready. That one sauce has grown into an entire product line, uniquely named “Smack My [A**] & Call Me Sally” hot sauces. They’re available both at the restaurants as well as for individual sale.
The sauces fall into three heat-level categories: Sissy Sauce, Middle Weight, and Death Wish. Sissy Sauces are more sweet than hot and include varieties like Georgia Peach Vidalia Onion Hot Sauce and Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce. The heat level dials up a few notches in the Middle Weight category, featuring delicacies such as Bee Sting Honey Habanero Pepper Sauce and Ogre Sauce Hot BBQ Sauce. As the name implies, the Death Wish sauces are dangerously hot. These include several sauces derived from ghost peppers as well as Chet’s Gone Mad, which comes with the warning that it is, “one of the hottest products ever created. It is strictly a food additive and should not be used as a condiment.” Yum!
Tijuana Flats celebrates “Taco Tuesdaze”
Taco Tuesday is many people’s favorite day of the week, so you better believe that Tijuana Flats gets in on the fun. The chain celebrates “Taco Tuesdaze” every week with a pretty unbeatable deal. Every Tuesday, customers can get two tacos, chips, and a drink for the low price of $6.49.
For those trying to feed a hungry family, the chain has you covered, too. In 2020, Tijuana Flats unveiled its new Taco Meal Kit Bundles, which are only available for purchase on Taco Tuesdaze (via Restaurant Business). Costing just $40, the take-home kit comes with enough food to feed four to six people. It includes your choice of hard corn, wheat, or soft flour tortillas, a filling of classic or blackened chicken or beef. It also comes with an assortment of taco toppings, including lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese, jalapenos, and sour cream. It also comes with chips and a family-size serving of the “Tijuana Trio”, otherwise known as salsa, guacamole, and queso.
Tijuana Flats often offers limited-time menu items
Nothing spurs up excitement at chain restaurants quite like limited-time menu items, a fact Tijuana Flats knows just as well as anyone. Though not as famous as the pumpkin spice lattes or McRibs of the world, Tijuana Flats offers a number of delicious items on a limited-time basis. Last summer, QSR reports, the chain introduced its new Queso Crunch Burrito. Available for about a month, the burrito featured a choice of chicken or beef, queso, tortilla strips, rice, black beans, garlic lime sauce, cheddar jack cheese, and pico de gallo.
In December, Tijuana Flats re-released its Grilled Cheesy Steak Flautas. These delectable rolled tacos were filled with fajita peppers, onions, three kinds of cheese, covered in a garlic lime sauce, and served with sour cream, queso, and guacamole. The flautas were brought back for a month due to popular demand.
So far in 2021, Tijuana Flats has launched limited runs of Fajita Tacos, which were sold from January 11 through March 7, and a Street Corn menu available sold from June 7 through August 1. The former was a part fajita, part taco concoction filled with grilled chicken or steak, fajita peppers and onions, garlic lime sauce, and fresh guajillo chile salsa. The latter featured items such street corn tacos, quesadillas, bowls, and flautas.
The chain is incorporating new technology in its stores
If restaurants weren’t embracing new technologies before, the COVID-19 pandemic surely forced their hands. But Tijuana Flats seemingly had no hesitations about diving headfirst into the new fast food frontier. Franchising.com reports that, in late 2020, the chain opened a high-tech, prototype store in Noblesville, Indiana. The location features technological enhancements such as digital menus and ticker displays, as well as a redesigned horseshoe-shaped kitchen to improve efficiency (via Restaurant Business).
According to Franchising.com, the updates also include communication improvements between the customer and the kitchen. “I’m proud to see the direction Tijuana Flats is going,” store owner John Rowe told the news outlet. “It makes you excited to see what’s next.”
In April 2021, the Orlando Sentinel reports that Tijuana Flats opened two more prototype stores, both in Florida, with plans of debuting an additional two before the end of the year. The company also hopes to remodel many of its current locations. “The new prototype is really a game changer for us,” Eric Taylor, Tijuana Flats Vice President of Development told Franchising.com. “It proves how this brand is willing to evolve and continue to get better. We didn’t change everything, but we improved what was already popular.”
Tijuana Flats is looking to expand outside of Florida
Tijuana Flats has grown from a single location to more than 100 stores in just over a quarter-century in business. However, all but eight of those restaurants are in the state of Florida as of 2021, something the chain’s executives plan on changing in the near future.”We have really loyal guests and fans; unfortunately, there’s only so much territory left in Florida. Most of our inquiries are in Florida, so now it’s about critical mass,” Eric Taylor, Tijuana Flats Vice President of Development Taylor, told Franchise Times. “We’re hoping to replicate that same passionate fan base in these other states. We’ve done that in Indiana.”
Just last year, Tijuana Flats restarted their franchise business model with a growing focus on opening new locations beyond Florida borders. While the newest locations will also be in the Sunshine State, there’s confidence the Tex-Mex outlet will be successful in regions outside of Florida. “Tijuana Flats has primarily been a Florida brand for 25 years,” Taylor said (via Franchising.com). “With its bold flavors and broad appeal we believe this brand could be very successful on a national level.”
Tijuana Flats has its own charitable foundation
Even as it has risen to become one of the largest Tex-Mex chains in the country, Tijuana Flats hasn’t forgotten about the local communities it serves. In 2007, the company founded its non-profit arm, the Just in Queso Foundation. The charity supports organizations helping locals through difficult times, with a particular focus on those groups serving the military and children. Its first fundraiser included donating proceeds from the sale of the restaurant’s hot sauces to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and the non-profit hasn’t stopped giving away money since. The Just in Queso Foundation has raised and donated more than $4 million to date.
As we all surely know by now, the coronavirus’ emergence has taken an unprecedented toll on the restaurant industry and communities around the country. As such, the Tijuana Flats charity has stepped up. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Just in Queso foundation has given monetary and food donations to people and groups in local settings, as well as to frontline workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and police and fire stations. It also has continued its employee assistance fund, which gives out up to $1,000 to Tijuana Flats workers experiencing hardship.