Taco Time cooks up ‘authentic’ marketing plans

Walk into any fast food joint and not much would likely catch your eye. Most have the same stainless steel counters, rigid plastic chairs and non-descript hues, save for the few bright playgrounds for little folk. But Calgary-based Taco Time is aiming to distance itself from the norm, with a new marketing strategy that is designed to paint the 115-unit franchise as more 'authentic.'

Walk into any fast food joint and not much would likely catch your eye. Most have the same stainless steel counters, rigid plastic chairs and non-descript hues, save for the few bright playgrounds for little folk. But Calgary-based Taco Time is aiming to distance itself from the norm, with a new marketing strategy that is designed to paint the 115-unit franchise as more ‘authentic.’

The launch of an ‘urban concept’ by the end of this year and a new ad effort to tout its Mexican fare are both on the menu board for the 23-year-old quick service restaurant (QSR) chain. To be developed by Calgary shop The Agency Group, which already handles Taco Time’s P-O-P, the advertising will consist primarily of a 52-week radio buy.

But it will also mark the company’s first real ‘commitment to brand development,’ according to Taco Time Canada president Ken Pattenden, who reports that system-wide sales and franchise revenues are expected to hit $45 million in 2002.

‘Our message will gear around bridging a bit of the authenticity gap that exists with customers. When they think of fast food, they don’t think of authenticity. We want to focus more on our food.’

While its competitors in the QSR category often use premiums and incentives to drive sales, Taco Time no longer has the need, he says. ‘Ten years ago we would have given away a Mars Bar with a combo meal, but today half our customers would order a combo meal to start with, so it’s an added cost without a lot of growth.’

He adds that something like a chocolate bar wouldn’t work with the new brand strategy as it isn’t considered Mexican fare. ‘We’d rather invest in our brand and maintain the ethnicity of our menu.’

Luckily, Mexican cuisine is more popular these days too; in focus group research, the chain asked participants to rank food types in order of preference. Mexican came up in the top three in 75% of the cases. Pattenden believes this enthusiasm is driven by growing consumer interest in ethnic tastes. ‘You can’t go into a casual restaurant these days without having quesadillas or fajitas on the menu,’ he says. ‘We want to position ourselves as the authentic deliverer of [Mexican] items.’

Since the chow will be highlighted in the spots, the umbrella campaign will reflect the various Taco Time formats – drive-thru, mall-based and its new urban prototype, Taco Time Cantina, whose first location will probably pop up in the Vancouver market.

The Cantina will be planted in high-pedestrian traffic areas, and while its menu is identical to that of the regular banner, it will differ in that its service will be ‘flipped,’ says Pattenden. In other words, dishes will be prepared in front of the customer, as opposed to back in the kitchen, enabling visitors to customize their orders with ‘more rice and less beans,’ for instance.

In focus group research, consumers suggested that if food was prepared within sight it would appear more genuine than a soft taco wrapped in wax paper.

‘The Cantina store front itself will speak to what it is we’re doing – that we are Mexican,’ he adds. ‘That may mean funky awnings, wood-frame windows and open and airy interiors, with lots of loud Mexican music playing. It’s going to be obvious what it is.’

Wine and beer will also be on hand, connoting more of a leisurely environment and luring more families in order to broaden out beyond the characteristic 18-34 QSR demographic. In the QSR industry, the concept has been coined ‘fast casual,’ and the trend is as hot as a sizzling fajita.

Retailers are getting away from the ‘homogenized, stereotypical fast food diner look,’ explains Vancouver-based retail analyst Ian Thomas, president of Thomas Consultants. ‘Authenticity is one of the watchwords of retailing today,’ he adds. ‘Consumers want a more visceral experience.’

McDonald’s, for example, has clued in to the need to establish a distinct dining experience. In June, the fast-food giant unveiled its first ‘McDonald’s with the Diner Inside’ layout in Tipton, Ind., allowing patrons to choose either table service, with an expanded menu including meatloaf and hot open-faced sandwiches, or McDonald’s traditional quick-service convenience and fare.

Meanwhile, in France, half of the chain’s 932 venues have been refurbished to house unique thematic designs. For instance, a restaurant on Champs Elysées called ‘Music’ has a rocking ambience thanks to CD players and TVs that air the latest videos. Another prototype, ‘Sport,’ has bicycle-seat inspired chairs and sports games on TV screens. Since the alterations began in 1998, same-store sales have increased by between 3% and 20%, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

This month the company will also open a 17,000-sq.-ft., three-level, theatrical-style restaurant in Times Square, complete with a marquee, exposed brick walls and a multimedia exhibit.

Sales at the U.S. McDonald’s chain have been rather stagnant; south of the border they grew only 1% for the first two months of the second quarter of this year and 2% through year-to-date May, according to a press release. For the second quarter and for the year, the firm expects U.S. sales to inch up by low single digits.

In the case of Taco Time, Cantina will likely comprise three-quarters of new store growth, according to Pattenden, who plans to add 10 to 15 new venues to the franchise annually.

Thomas believes it is a healthy recipe. ‘I think the Cantina is creating something that will have more of a family appeal, because the parents can have a glass of wine or a beer along with a great menu,’ he says. ‘I think it’s a very clever niche.’

For the past three years, the Taco Time franchise has also renovated the majority of its already-existing venues, ditching the stainless steel counters and archetypical white décor, and replacing it with richer yellows, purples and rusts – an image cooked up by Calgary-based Maxam Design International.

‘Forty per cent of our units are in food courts, and you need to be quite visual,’ explains Pattenden, who estimates that the modifications have boosted sales by an average of 10%. ‘As people are walking around looking at food options, the colors stand out quite a bit in that environment.’

Pattenden, who in August hired Gerry Lev, formerly development agent for Subway Restaurants in British Columbia, to help spearhead his expansion plans, hopes to make a stronger foray into the Ontario market sometime soon, although not without developing a partnership with an experienced food services operator in that region. Currently, the chain has outlets in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but only four stores in Ontario, all in Thunder Bay.

‘I won’t go in on a single-store development program. I’m more interested in talking with an experienced operator who is looking to build another brand in that market and then looking at it very quickly as a multiple unit market.’

Potential areas of interest are the Greater Toronto Area, or a smaller city such as Ottawa, where Taco Time can build a presence and sprout from there. ‘Really in Canada, there are only two Mexican players – us and Taco Bell. What happens is that some markets get to the point where there isn’t any more room for a burger or a sub place. So there is an opportunity to have an alternative Mexican concept in a lot of them.’

Taco Bell landed in Canada in the early ’80s and now has over 160 conventional, twinned and kiosk locations in all provinces except Quebec, P.E.I. and Newfoundland.