Chain Profile: Rusty Taco

A small, yet efficient, equipment package helps this young quick-service concept to offer authentic tacos prepared fresh daily.

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Rustys Tacos
Rusty Taco’s interior captures the essence of its gas station predecessor with the beige, bright blue and orange walls,,gray counter tiles and exposed industrial lighting and ductwork. The long tables and chairs encourage community dining.

When customers approach Rusty Taco in Dallas, they feel as though they are walking into a vintage gas station. Indeed they are. The site was formerly a Chevron station before it was purchased to become a restaurant in 2010.

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"I liked the gas station and thought it would be fun to put a restaurant in this space," says Russell "Rusty" Fenton, the concept's founder and owner. "I wanted it to be a gas station that sells tacos."

The gas station turned quick-service restaurant features an interior design in a garage motif with operable glass garage doors that staff open in good weather, a large covered patio with a 12-foot fan, exposed industrial lighting and ductwork and ice beer boxes. Gray tiles cover the front counters, which provide another clue of the space's previous use. Customers see most of the production operation when they place their orders and sit in the dining area that features community seating and counter seating.

The first corporate-owned unit is on Greenville Avenue near Southern Methodist University.

Two others are scheduled to open this summer, one near Parkland Hospital in Dallas and the other near Texas A&M University in College Station. The franchised Rusty Taco is located in St. Paul, Minn.

"We're proceeding slowly and cautiously," Fenton says. "I've seen what can happen when you're numbers-versus site-oriented."

Rusty Taco's three key objectives are to offer a simple menu of tasty and authentic tacos prepared fresh every day, using many of the cooking techniques found in Mexican kitchens; serve the food quickly in a unique and fun atmosphere that appeals to a large demographic base and allows operations in a variety of locations; and become a mainstay in the community — a local hangout, not just another typical chain restaurant. "Folks gotta eat, and Rusty Taco is going to feed them," says Fenton.

Fenton's decision to keep the concept simple and grow it slowly is a result of his 25-year history in the restaurant business. He was a founding partner of Uncle Julio's, a Dallas-based Mexican restaurant chain, which now has 16 locations. As part of an Uncle Julio's joint venture, Fenton helped develop Chevy's, which has 111 restaurants. Fenton also served as director of operations of Ocho Café, which has restaurants in Charlotte, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. As a consultant, Fenton worked with On the Border to help tighten operations before an IPO. On the Border is now owned by Brinker International and includes 160 restaurants.

Fenton also was employed by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide and worked with Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox to develop Taqueria Canonita, a Mexican food prototype for Carlson. Also with Carlson, Fenton provided transitional management for Samba Room, Timpano Italian Chophouse and Star Canyon, operating the restaurants until they were sold, as well as locating buyers for the concepts.

A Look Inside Rusty Taco
After customers place their orders and pay, they receive their meals at the counter within three minutes. They pick up beverages, chips, salsa, guacamole and chile con queso, which are positioned near the cash registers. Rusty Taco is primarily a self-serve concept.

Customers see most of the 1,700-square-foot operation with the exception of dishwashing, a hand sink, a walk-in cooler, dry shelving storage and an ice machine. A reach-in refrigerator holds corn and fresh flour tortillas. Staff use a six-foot stainless steel table to prep ingredients, including brisket, which is hand-shredded so the meat stays firm and fresh.

On the back line, staff use a 48-inch flattop griddle to cook ingredients for the tacos and fajitas, including mahi-mahi, shrimp, brisket, roasted pork, mushrooms, eggs, jalapeno sausage, cheese and potatoes. "The line is designed to work with as few as two cooks," Fenton says. But usually three or four are on duty to handle the volume of traffic.

Once cooked, the ingredients are transferred to five hot wells, making them readily available for staff to build tacos and top with cilantro and onions. "Hot wells are essential for us in order to keep up with production demands," Fenton says. "This production method contrasts with traditional taco production in which ingredients are placed directly into the tortillas. We serve up to 4,000 customers a week, so we have to keep production moving quickly."

Staff also use a six-burner range to cook tomatillos, peppers, onions, garlic and spices to make salsa verde, which is placed on customers' tables in the dining area. These ingredients stay cold in a refrigerated rail. Two 40-pound fryers on the line cook fish and chicken for tacos. A chip warmer and refrigerated expo table are also included in the equipment package.

Though this quick-service concept is all about tacos, Rusty Taco also draws customers who like its freshly made frozen margaritas, which are mixed in a margarita machine with lime juice, cheap tequila, triple sec and simple syrup. "On our website, we advertise the fact [that] we use cheap tequila," Fenton says. "When we use so much lime juice and other ingredients, we can buy inexpensive tequila and keep the price at $5." Rusty Taco also serves beers and soft drinks, which are kept cold in an underbar bottle cooler.

In the future, though the interior design of each new Rusty Taco will change slightly to fit the units' locations, the equipment package will remain the same to ensure product consistency and operational efficiency. Simplicity will continue to drive the mission so Rusty Taco can focus attention on the quality of the food and service.

Key Players:

  • Owner: Rusty Fenton
  • Architect: Jones Baker, Dallas
  • Interior Design: Jones Baker, Dallas
  • Equipment Dealer: LoneStar, Dallas
  • Construction: Benge General Contracting, Dallas

Facts of Note:

  • Ownership: Folks Gotta Eat LLC (Rusty Fenton)
  • Opened: April 2010
  • Headquarters: Dallas
  • Units: one corporate in Dallas on Greenville Avenue near Southern Methodist University, two to open in the summer of 2011 (one near a hospital and the other near Texas A&M in College Station), and one franchise in St. Paul, Minn.
  • Size: 1,700 sq. ft.
  • Seats: 53 inside; 110 outside; the second one will have 99 indoor seats and no outside seating
  • Average Check: $9.68; carry-out is 28 percent of sales
  • Total Annual Sales: $1.5 million annualized average for the first unit; $2 million budgeted for the second unit; and $1.25 million for the Texas A&M location
  • Transactions: 4,000 customers per week
  • Cost to Purchase a Franchise: $25,000 and a scalable royalty fee
  • Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Menu Specialties: Handmade tacos
  • Staff: 30 per store (most are part-time)
  • Total Restaurant Investment: $375,000
  • Equipment Investment: $35,000
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