The Rise of the Gourmet Taco Concepts

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

As the competitive landscape of the restaurant industry gets more crowded, we are seeing more emerging concepts that have a narrower focus.

There are comfort food concepts serving primarily an array of grilled cheeses and mac & cheese. There are restaurants that offer menus made up of entirely meatballs. Even, Arepas concepts have emerged.

Similarly, to the gourmet burger segment, a new segment is on the rise. Gourmet tacos.

“Fresh Mex” remains a wildly popular and successful segment, especially in fast casual. But, these gourmet taco concepts deserve to be categorized on their own.

So what are some of the elevated taco concepts gaining traction in this market? And why consumers by the masses are visiting these places?

We decided to sit down with three executives from different taco-focused restaurants to see what makes each of these concepts unique and why consumers are gravitating to them.

What makes your taco concept different than the other taco-focused brands out there?

Veronica Shore, marketing director of R Taco:

Born in Dallas in 2010, R Taco specializes in authentic street-style tacos handmade fresh, fast, and from scratch, all in our open kitchen. Our tacos are both traditional and inventive, each with a unique flavor and personality.

R Taco serves breakfast taco options all day­ – in addition to 13 signature tacos ranging from BBQ brisket taco, fried chicken taco to the original ‘Rusty Taco’ which is Achiote pork with pineapple, onion and cilantro, just to name a few. R Taco also offers margaritas and beer choices, as well as sides and salsas made in-house from scratch. It’s a simple yet fresh and flavorful take on tacos – a concept that we believe will be appealing to guests throughout the country.

Randy DeWitt, CEO of Front Burner Restaurants, including Velvet Taco:

Velvet Taco is redefining the taco experience, bringing a new level of sophistication, taste and versatility to the category. The funky, one-of-a-kind taco shop was founded on the idea that tacos do not have to be inspired by Tex-Mex cuisine and can be made with the same care and premium quality ingredients as fine-dining.

Velvet Taco distinguishes itself with a diverse, globally-inspired menu that offers a wide selection of flavors that explore the edge of multi-regional and multi-cultural boundaries. Oh, and did we mention we serve fresh fruit margaritas and homemade red velvet cake?

Mike Rypka, owner of Torchy’s Tacos:

We are very focused on quality and cooking from scratch. Also, we bring a great diversity in flavor and texture to our food that separates us from the pack! 

What's your brand's growth plan?

Veronica Shore of R Taco:

R Taco is expanding by adding new locations in all our current markets over the next several months. We recently welcomed a new franchisee to our system with plans to open in Beaumont and Baytown Texas, and Lafayette La.

We are seeking interested and qualified franchisees and business partners with multi-restaurant experience to expand R Taco to additional markets– including Indianapolis, Ind.; Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville and Lexington, Ky.; Nashville, Tenn.; Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.; and Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo. R Taco plans to expand its corporate-owned restaurant locations as well.

DeWitt of Velvet Taco:

Velvet Taco recently partnered with the consumer-focused private equity firm L Catterton to continue to build the brand. Together with L Catterton, the Velvet Taco team sees a tremendous opportunity to expand Velvet Taco’s innovative, food-forward approach to fast casual dining into new and existing markets.

Mike Rypka of Torchy’s Tacos:

Currently our plan is to keep developing stores in our current markets: Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. And we are looking at our next out of state hotspot. We haven’t made any decisions yet, but we are looking at Nashville as a big possibility.

What have been some of the effective marketing strategies used by your brand?

Veronica Shore of R Taco:

R Taco is a very straightforward concept offering authentic and inspired street-style tacos, using only the highest quality ingredients, in a fun and lively atmosphere.

R Taco also features gluten-friendly and vegetarian options. Each taco has a unique flavor profile. Different from typical fast casual “build your own” concepts, or set “meal deals,” guests can pick and choose their favorite tacos and sides “a la carte.”

DeWitt of Velvet Taco:

We focus on fun and engaging social media, guest-focused messaging within the four walls, and local PR.

Word of mouth marketing and social media has been and will continue to be a primary focus. We are fortunate to have really passionate fans. It is important that we stay connected to our loyal fans, listen to and embrace their feedback, and ensure that they always know the fastest way to get their taco fix.

Mike Rypka of Torchy’s Tacos:

Our biggest bang has been online and social media, and creating a culture that encourages word of mouth.

So what do these thriving taco concepts all have in common? Quality ingredients and unique brand voices.