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Tijuana Flats Tex-Mex Chain Expands Into New Southeast Markets

Restaurant News 08.20.09

–Daily Vista–

Tijuana Flats, an Orlando, Fla.-based Tex-Mex chain, announced it has opened its 68th location in Ocala, Fla., a city that resides between Orlando and Gainesville, Fla. according to Ocala.com.

To help celebrate its newest opening, Tijuana Flats plans to donate 20 percent of its proceeds to the Marion Therapeutic Riding Association, an Ocala organization that uses horses to assist in the treatment of mentally disadvantaged children and adults.
The Tijuana Flats restaurant concept serves Tex-Mex food selections that include chimichangas, tacos, flautas, quesadillas and burritos. The restaurant kitchen prepares each meal fresh to order.

Tijuana Flats is highly recognizable for its 15 sauces that are ranked by Scovilles, which is the measurement of the heat in any given pepper. With memorable names like “sissy,” “oh, lord, don’t take me now!” and “smack my @#! and call me Sally,” the company has created a unique niche eatery where they claim that some things might offend you, but the food won’t be one of them.

Speaking further with DailyVista, Marketing Manager Brandy Blackwell said that Tijuana Flats truly prides itself in its customer service.
Though patrons only pay for fast casual dining, she said that the full service they receive at each location is beyond what is expected for this type of eatery.

“Our menu has a wide variety. We have a large selection of different entrees and healthy options like low-fat cheese and sour cream, and we have wheat options for the tortillas,” she said. “Our food is always fresh – the salsa and guacamole is made fresh daily, and thrown out daily if it’s not used. We don’t have microwaves and our food won’t sit in a walk-in freezer for days. It just looks and tastes fresh.”

Tijuana Flats’ next location to open in September will be a restaurant front in Raleigh, N.C., which Blackwell said is its second North Carolina-based store; the is in Charlotte.

“Beyond the Southeast, I can’t say what’s to come,” she said. “Ideally of course, we’d like to be everywhere, but right now we’re moving further into the North Carolina market, so we’ll eventually go in and put more locations in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas. We’ve also saturated South Florida. We recently opened three locations: one in Miramar, before that was Coconut Creek and before that was Wellington.”
Eventually, Tijuana Flats hopes to expand into Palm Beach, but Blackwell said that the restaurateur already has a presence in Sunrise, Cooper City, Pompano and Deerfield – all populated areas in Broward County.

After it opens in Raleigh, Tijuana Flats will open its doors in Sarasota, Fla. in October, and by the end of 2009, it will have added 10 new locations to its repertoire.
Tijuana Flats primarily utilizes local store marketing, and relies heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations to get the word out about its unique concept in new areas.
“Our advertising is going to expand slightly,” Blackwell said. “We just recently did a direct mail piece, which is something we don’t normally do with a whole lot of couponing, and we ran that for three months in a new market.”

Our source even visits local businesses in the areas where Tijuana Flats is planning a store opening in an effort to drive brand awareness by providing free food. She said that Tijuana Flats is so confident that people will be hooked once they try the food that the company doesn’t mind shelling out the initial cost for them to taste the product.
“These markets are so different – for example, you can’t compare a South Florida Tijuana Flats to a Raleigh Tijuana Flats. It’s very different people, so it’s a matter of being flexible and able to tier it and I get involved with the chambers (of commerce), we’re so very community-driven,” Blackwell said. “We’re about building relationships and helping out, and that’s why a lot of customers come back for an experience.”

Being a Tex-Mex chain has its advantages. Tijuana Flats’ demographic is all over the map and ranges from the soccer mom to the college student and everyone in between.
“There’s really no limit, so from a marketing perspective, we really don’t discriminate at all,” Blackwell said. “Sure, if we’re going to pick a radio station to do promotions with, we’ll pick the alternative rock station because it’s in line with our ‘anything goes’ approach, but as for my efforts when I’m out in the field visiting people to talk aboutĀ Tijuana Flats, I have no preference, personally.”

While Tijuana Flats’ outreach is almost completely a grassroots effort, Blackwell said that every so often, the company will use local publications, and even more so if they pertain to local schools or communities. In South Florida, the company saw great success with its gift card program, and although the company has ideas for each market, Blackwell said she’s not entirely certain of its marketing mix moving forward.

According to Blackwell, Orlando-based Push serves as its agency of record, and handles all of the company’s marketing, advertising and media buying at this time. To date, she said that Tijuana Flats has yet to outsource any projects because a majority of them are done in-house.
“Obviously, we kind of count on our ad agency to know those things for us and to assist us with those, but we do a lot of our own things because we’re out in the field seeing what’s going on and shaking hands with people that live in those areas,” she said.

When Tijuana Flats opens in new markets, whether there’s brand familiarity or not, the company will most often implement some marketing to bring people in the door, but once they’ve figured out who is visiting the restaurant more frequently, the company begins to put together a more targeted approach.
“We open the store and sometimes our creativity comes after that, when we’ve got a feel for who’s coming in our doors,” Blackwell said. “Why throw money against the wall in each direction just to realize you didn’t do it right?”