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Exclusive Q&A: Expansion heating up at Condado Tacos

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Condado Tacos is almost halfway to its goal of opening up to 100 locations by 2026 — and it shows no signs of losing momentum.

The fast-growing, casual dining chain, which specializes in build-your-own tacos, margaritas and tequilas served in a colorful and energetic environment, opened its first location in 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. The brand, a Chain Store Age 2023 Breakout Retailer Award winner, currently operates 44 locations in 15 markets, and is on pace to open up to seven more restaurants by the end of the year. This puts Condado Tacos halfway to hitting its goal of operating up to 100 locations within the next three years.

The taco retailer approaches its expansion “in a thoughtful way,” said Chris Artinian, president and CEO of Condado Tacos.

“With a focus on the suburbs as well as downtown locations, we are striving to open 12 new stores a year,” he said. “We are working our way across the Midwest, east coast and mid-Atlantic,” he explained. By expanding our footprint in a thoughtful way, we have no doubt we are well on our way to becoming a national brand.”

Chain Store Age’s Deena Amato-McCoy spoke with Artinian about the company’s expansion strategy, its culture and how it uses technology to improve the customer experience.

What are the most important factors in your expansion and real estate strategy?

We feature a unique “come as you are” atmosphere, and rely on that to broadly appeal to customers — both existing customers and new ones in new locations. 

When we started our journey, we focused on downtown properties. Our first restaurant, our Short North location in Columbus, Ohio, is a downtown restaurant. It is located a couple blocks from Ohio State University, and it is a great fit for the “hipster” neighborhood. 

However, when COVID struck, we wanted to be closer to our customers and began moving into suburban markets. We now target residential areas with an average $50,000 household income. Our core suburban customer is between 25-55 years old, and we skew toward younger families. 

Downtown, our customer is a little younger and wants to walk to our locations. That is why urban properties that have a mix of office, hospitality and retail are most appealing to us.

Looking ahead, as household incomes continue to increase we can target even more robust and dense areas.

How big are the restaurants? 

Our target footprint is 4,000 sq. ft., and most of our locations are free-standing or positioned in the end cap of a lifestyle center.

Spaces with sizable patios are also a priority. This combination enables us to seat up to 150 customers indoors and serve between 90 to 150 patio customers. What’s better than tacos and margaritas on a patio?

What are some of the key elements of the store design?

All locations feature concrete floors and roll-up garage doors that open to the patio. We use a combination of metal and wood materials in our interior, and for indoor and patio tables and chairs.

However, we do not have a cookie-cutter blueprint for store design and decor. Every location is individualized with art and graffiti that reflects the community. We work with local artists that express their view of community on our restaurant walls. This creates an atmosphere that welcomes all customers and invites them to also uniquely be themselves. 

You mentioned a "come as you are" atmosphere, which is also your tagline.  How do employees fit into it? 

Our founder Joe Kahn is still very much involved in our brand vision which is to create an atmosphere that celebrates individuality. We want employees to “be the best version of themselves.” This means we don’t require uniforms, and encourage our staff to wear what makes them comfortable and unique. 

Our success is also centered on personalization and transparency. For example, we strive to foster two-way communications with our teams at restaurant-level. We also aim to be transparent regarding what we want to accomplish as company, and we are mindful to pinpoint opportunities.

Another priority for us is to understand what our employees want from their professional experience with Condado — and then we work to personalize the experience. Many staff members are students and are eager to make extra money for their education, which is something our culture helps to facilitate.

Others employed are starting their hospitality career with us. We are teaching them great life skills, teamwork and how to interact with customers and each other.

There is advancement in our organization, as well. Our COO Johnny Zela started in 2014 in our original restaurant. He held different hourly roles and now is part of our leadership team. He is proof that it is important to cultivate talent internally — these are your greatest ambassadors.

What role does technology play at Condado Tacos and are there any new innovations on the horizon? 

We always look for ways to make the customer experience as frictionless as possible, and technology plays a significant role. Customers can place orders online as well as through our mobile app. Orders can be picked up in-store, or delivered through our third-party partner. 

Our staff uses handheld devices for table-side ordering and to close and process bills. The devices also enable our wait staff to process orders quicker. We have approximately 40 devices at each location, and each one is connected to our point-of-sale (POS) to keep the dining experience seamless.

With talent at a premium, we also continue to search for new ways to work more efficiently and minimize the need for labor but without sacrificing quality. We installed digital screens in our kitchens and connected them to our handheld and POS systems. These screens display orders in real-time, and enable us to prepare and fulfill digital orders within 30 minutes. 

We are also about to test robotics to streamline the frying of fresh taco chips — a manual process that can take between eight and 12 hours. We expect the technology to save us hours of food preparation and labor, and then we can re-invest that time in training our team for other operations. The technology will be tested in two locations.

Where do you see Condado Tacos  in about 18 to 24 months? 

We continue to be thoughtful — and aggressive — about our expansion. We will continue opening between 12 and 15 new stores every year, and hiring between 70 and 100 new managers annually to run these locations.

By the end of this year, we will hit 50 locations and we are on a very strong path to hit our goal of 100 locations in our first 10-to-12 years in existence. However, we will stay mindful to keep up the pace. We plan to just keep opening one restaurant at a time and investing in our people so we can keep serving the best tacos and margaritas.

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