Torchy’s Tacos CEO GJ Hart
Torchy’s Tacos, the restaurant chain that started as an Austin food trailer in 2006, is planning an aggressive expansion beyond the Southwest. Exec Edge sat down with Torchy’s Chief Executive Officer G.J. Hart to ask about how the company thrived during the pandemic.
Torchy’s has locations in Texas, Colorado and Missouri and others, and plans to add locations in 10 more states within four years. Hart, who previously ran California Pizza Kitchen Inc. and Texas Roadhouse Inc., joined the company in 2018. The company is in line to go public this year, according various media reports.
Exec Edge: You have been at the helm of fast growing craft-casual brand Torchy’s for just over two years. What brought you to Torchy’s?
I have a nearly four-decade-long career working in all aspects of the food and restaurant industry, and just when I thought it was time to slow down, an opportunity at Torchy’s presented itself and I knew there was no way I could resist the chance to work with such a red hot brand.
I’d started my career at the Shenandoah Valley Poultry Company while a student at James Madison University. I started as a business trainee, working my way up until, after eight years, I became a co-owner. From there I was president of New Zealand Lamb Company and moved to help launch Trifoods International, a startup that created, produced, and marketed prepared foods. I also spent six years as president of Al Copeland Investments, which owned three food processing plants, four restaurant concepts, hotels, and a gaming/entertainment venue.
Since those times working on both the supplier and investment sides of the business, I’ve been fortunate to lead some incredible restaurant brands. After serving as CEO at Texas Roadhouse and California Pizza Kitchen. When the opportunity to become CEO of Torchy’s was presented to me, I couldn’t turn it down. The incredible potential that I saw in this restaurant brand built on Damn Good tacos and hospitality and a dynamic culture sparked my interest and I knew I had to take this opportunity.
Exec Edge: How would you describe your management style?
I believe in a philosophy of leadership through building and nurturing a best-in-class culture. I think work culture is created by design, not by default, and as such, it’s been my goal in each of my leadership roles to cultivate trust and transparency and encourage open communication. I have always strived to establish a culture that inspires its people to reach for new heights, and foster an atmosphere in which acknowledgement and rewards for team members’ contributions and hard work are given. This philosophy is apparent, for example, through the Torchy’s Managing Partner program in which restaurant leaders personally invest in their own restaurants. During the challenging times of this pandemic, I’ve found that this program has allowed Torchy’s and our Managing Partners who lead their restaurants on the frontlines every day to quickly pivot, innovate the off-premise experience to meet the changing needs of guests, and keep morale high in the face of these challenges. All of those things have allowed us to continue to be successful, and even grow, during this time.
I’ve always taken the approach that in order to be a good leader and have others respect and trust you, you have to be your personal best and truly lead by example. I have a saying I share with my teams: so goes the leader, so go the rest. Great leaders look in the mirror and judge whether they are delivering on their promises to their people and trusting their team, and this is something I inwardly reflect on frequently.
Regardless of the business or the condition of their company culture, I’ve found that a positive approach that enables people to pursue their passions, while establishing a common vision, always supports a positive company culture.
Exec Edge: What business lessons have you learned from the current pandemic? What changes are you making to the brand post-COVID?
These have no doubt been challenging times for the restaurant industry, but we are pleased to have seen incredible demand from Taco Junkies across our restaurants, through takeout, delivery and curbside pickup at the start of the pandemic, and now as our dining rooms have reopened with safety measures in place. As we continue to navigate this time it is our goal to continue positioning ourselves to be a stronger brand than ever once the pandemic has passed and we are on track to meet that goal.
During the pandemic, we quickly learned our guests were looking for versatile menu offerings during this time, leading us to add new menu options that provide comfort, convenience and a little bit of the Torchy’s experience at home. These new menu items include our Family Packs, which offer everything guests need to create a fresh Torchy’s meal at home. The entire Family Pack serves four to five for around $30, and we’ve found it to be an offering that is really resonating with our guests. In addition, we created At-Home Margarita Kits and are offering Torchy’s signature margaritas to-go, in addition to local beer and wine selections depending on what is permitted in each state. We also made the decision to remove a few of the lowest-selling tacos from our menu to allow us to better operate our restaurants in response to today’s unprecedented obstacles while continuing to exceed our guests’ expectations in quality and hospitality.
As we look ahead, we are focused on rethinking the guest experience and will continue to differentiate ourselves as a Craft Casual brand through our focus on high quality, scratch made food and drinks, creativity and menu innovations. We’re also focusing on key upgrades to our business that were already in development. This includes reevaluating what is needed from a restaurant footprint and design standpoint, such as patio seating, drive-thrus, contactless takeout, and upgrading packaging to improve how guests experience Torchy’s at home. We are also focused on increasing our speed of service.
Exec Edge: What sells Torchy’s tacos? What sets the brand apart from other taco chains?
Torchy’s Craft Casual concept, which is really a category all its own. We’re focused on exceptional ingredient quality and creative, scratch-made preparations. We squeeze fresh limes for our margaritas, shuck fresh corn for our Street Corn and prepare everything fresh from scratch daily. We also offer a variety of ways to experience Torchy’s: guests can order at the bar, order at the counter and be seated to enjoy their food, or take our tacos to go. In a pre- and even more so now a post-COVID world, we’re focused on giving our guests options to enjoy our food how and where they prefer.
As a brand what also really sets us apart is our creativity and menu innovation, such as with our popular Taco of the Month. For example, late last year we offered a Taco of the Month called The Washingtonian, which was a nod to election season and also our founder Mike Rypka’s hometown near Washington, DC. To create excitement with our guests, we launched a “Tacos/Queso 2020” campaign by offering The Washingtonian Taco of the Month along with campaign-themed merchandise that celebrates Damn Good food, limited-edition T-shirts, bumper stickers, and more. This is the sort of creativity and delicious food our fans have come to expect from Torchy’s.
Torchy’s is a bold and fun brand that is all about guests’ experience and serving them Damn Good tacos, and we will continue to connect and engage with our guests both at our restaurants as well as on social media.
Exec Edge: You have put management programs in place at Texas Roadhouse, California Pizza Kitchen and now Torchy’s. Can you explain the program?
The Managing Partner program, simply put, is like an internal franchise system. Partners are selected in markets in which they know and love, and if they are interested and willing to commit, pay us a fee similar to a down payment to operate their restaurant with a three-year contract. The program pays our restaurant Managing Partners seven percent of operating profit plus base pay, which instills a pride of ownership and a sense of everyone being in this together. We find when people have some skin in the game they feel more of a responsibility to see our business succeed, operate at high level of excellence and keep the guest experience top of mind even during challenging times.
Our Managing Partner program has been instrumental to our success especially during this time, and I credit our Managing Partners for the ability to quickly pivot and to innovate to meet the changing needs of our guests, in addition to keeping the spirit of our teams high in the face of these challenges.
Exec Edge: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Over the course of my career, one key thing I’ve learned is that quick and thoughtful action, open communication and transparency as well as an unwavering focus on safety, innovation and the guest experience are the keys to resiliency. These are things I focus on today in my role at Torchy’s.
Another is to take away a lesson from every experience – both success and failure. Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during my career have come as a result of failure. These are some of the most important moments because when you find yourself in the face of adversity that is when you are shaped into the leader you want to become.
Lastly, it starts with people. Once you find the right people, it’s critical to treat them right, give them a voice and establish a clear vision for them to rally around. Be committed to see things through every day and never sacrifice people as a result. Also, always focus on doing the right thing for every single person at your organization. While caring for people and nurturing the company’s culture is not a short term effort and requires a lot of hard work and effort, it is well worth it.
Exec Edge: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Something I’ve always told my team members is to dream big and lead with your heart. It’s also important to find what’s needed to succeed in whatever role you’re in and whatever role you want to be in and be tenacious about it. At the end of the day, be the best you can be, hold yourself accountable and always do the right thing.