Taco Casa is considered the best-kept secret in Texas by its customers because of the bond the company has developed within its communities and its consistent quality. The Tex-Mex chain has stayed successful over the past 40 years because of that sense of ownership its customers have for it, and also because the company has stayed true to its founding vision of providing better quality food and service.
“I think what sets us apart is that we have never lost vision of why we wanted to be different than Taco Bell or Taco Bueno,” co-founder and COO Shelda Upshaw says. “It’s not always about the bottom line. We keep our quality at the highest standards and use the best meats, cheeses and sauces that we can. We don’t want our customers to ever feel cheated and they are going to notice the difference with the taste and quality of food and the amount of food.”
Upshaw and her husband, Roy Upshaw, founded the Fort Worth, Texas-based company in 1972 after almost a decade of experience as a Taco Bell franchisee.
Taco Casa began with 16 menu items and has not expanded its menu since it started. “We still want to cook our shells, meat and beans fresh several times a day, offer quality food and keep the menu simple,” Shelda Upshaw says. “It was never our intention to own a lot of stores, but we had friends and family come to us and wanted the opportunity.”
More than 40 years and a number of investors later, Taco Casa has grown to 73 stores with 70 of those located in Texas and three in Oklahoma. The company opened five new stores last year and 24 locations in the 24 months prior. Taco Casa is expected to open five more locations this year.
“Last year was like a breath of fresh air,” Upshaw jokes. “I tell people that you never know what the future is going to be in terms of growth. We’ve never advertised to sell a franchise, went to an expo or sought out anyone to buy a franchise.”
Everything is bigger in Texas and its leaves more room for Taco Casa. “From our office you can drive 600 miles to the west before you reach the border; 100 miles to the north before the border; almost 300 miles to the east and over 300 miles to the south before you hit the border,” Upshaw notes. “You see my point: Texas is huge and Oklahoma is huge.”
Staying the Course
Controlled growth is vital for Taco Casa to stay true to its vision and maintain the quality demanded of its franchisees. Upshaw does not see the company expanding nationwide anytime soon because it likes to use its local vendors. “Our tortilla company is in Fort Worth, our distributors are here and most of our sauces are made locally,” she says. “We never want anything frozen and don’t have freezers in our locations. When you start expanding too far away you have to use frozen ingredients.”
Taco Casa has worked with a number of its vendors for many years, but also looks to secure the best pricing for its stores. “The bigger we get the more volume we do, and the more we sell as a company the more negotiating power we have,” Upshaw says. “This helps our franchisees’ food and paper costs stay down.”
As the company continues to grow organically, Upshaw sees expansion as a double-edged sword. She finds more Taco Casa locations beneficial for greater buying power, but the challenge of maintaining the vision remains as each new franchisee comes on board. “We still are that hometown, small, individually owned store and not corporate America,” Upshaw adds. “We want our franchisees to maintain that so when the customer comes in they know we are not corporate America. They can still call the office and talk to the owner or call the store and talk to the owner. That’s the biggest challenge as we get bigger – keeping that atmosphere.”
To ensure the atmosphere is maintained at every location, Taco Casa’s four supervisors visit each store at least once per month and grade the location on its performance. The company hosts biannual managers meetings for ongoing training and to introduce new initiatives such as the company’s loyalty program, which sends customers text messages for savings.
“Whenever we open a store, the person in charge of the day-to-day operations has to have at least 200 hours of training with one of my staff in our stores,” Upshaw explains. “We also try to hire at least half the staff and make sure they get between 20 and 40 hours of training.”
Employment opportunity is just one way Taco Casa gets involved in its communities. The company retains employees by creating a positive and accommodating atmosphere. “Our stores are owned by caring individuals that make their store a friendly place to work and get involved by buying school supplies or funding scholarships for the community,” Upshaw says. “We encourage them to get involved with the community and their employees.”
Throughout the year, Taco Casa honors employees of the month and employee incentives that come with cash, gift card or theme park rewards. “At the end of the year, we have a Rising Star award where the owners nominate an employee that epitomizes the heart of Taco Casa and who may have overcome challenges in their life, but comes to work with a smile on their face,” Upshaw says.
During the managers’ meetings, Taco Casa gives away thousands of dollars’ worth of prizes in the hope that each manager leaves with the “infectiousness of the spirit of Taco Casa to keep it alive,” Upshaw adds. “We want them to know we care about them, our customers and our food.”
Taco Casa recently launched the JWay Foundation and has put collection boxes in each location to raise money for disaster relief.
“We had nine tornados touch down this year right in the heart of the Taco Casa area and several of our franchisees got together to help feed the clean-up crews in those areas,” Upshaw says. “We hope that with the JWay Foundation we will have this set up so we can go in when a disaster like that happens and be ready with boots on the ground.”
The foundation will have a mobile taco truck to help feed people, but will also raise money for clothing, scholarships and other needs the communities have. “The next time someone comes in and maybe lost everything in a fire and asks if Taco Casa can help, they will call the JWay Foundation and we can help them directly,” Upshaw explains.
“The franchisee may not have the means to help, but hopefully we will have the ability to put on a fundraiser or donate directly to them through JWay.”
Moving forward, Taco Casa will continue to grow organically, keeping its stores in Texas and Oklahoma to ensure every location embodies the company’s vision. “We want to show that you can still build an organization with pride and integrity without sacrificing quality, and still be involved and give back to the community,” Upshaw says. “That’s the American way.”