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UCF Alum Creates Business from Scratch

Restaurant News 10.27.09

–By Renita Frett–

Dat’l-Do-It Datil Pepper Hot Sauce, Louisiana Swamp Scum, Lizard’s on the Bayou Gila Venom and Screamin’ with Torture are just some of the unique sauces you might find at Tijuana Flats, a restaurant created by UCF alumnus Brian Wheeler.
Wheeler graduated in 1995 with a degree in marketing. That same year he opened his first restaurant in Winter Park, after a $10,000 loan from the bank and a $20,000 loan from his parents.

Wheeler attended UCF after he spent two years at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville.

“By the time I was at UCF I was a junior, and after six years of partying and going out in Gainesville, I was ready to focus,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler was always interested in business and intrigued by the idea of creating a brand.

“I fell in love with the concept of creating and I knew I wanted to have my own business. Majoring in marketing fit that,” Wheeler said.

The idea to create Tijuana Flats came from hanging out in Gainesville. Wheeler used to go to a lot of the bars and restaurants around campus. He remembers a restaurant called Burrito Bros., especially.

“It used get really busy for such a small place, but their menu was really simple” he said.

He decided he wanted to open up his own Tex-Mex restaurant. He worked hard on the recipes he wanted to include and used some of the training he received from UCF to open his restaurant. While at UCF, one of his professors assigned a group project to create a fictitious business and gave him a format to create it. He used the same format to launch Tijuana Flats the year he graduated.

Wheeler now owns 70 restaurants throughout the southeast United States. His company built eight or nine restaurants this past year and has plans to open about the same amount within the next year.

His dad, Chester Wheeler, is retired and now works with him, helping out with the financial side of the business. He said Brian used to work for UPS and expressed to him that he didn’t want to do that for the rest of his life. Brian showed him his business plan for the restaurant, which persuaded Chester to lend him the money to help out with the business venture.

“I don’t think anybody thought it would do so well. It started off as just a little hole in the wall,” Chester Wheeler said.

Tijuana Flats has also created a separate company, Tijuana Flats Hot Food Inc., to produce sauces for the restaurant and to sell unique hot sauces to the public. About 80 of the sauces sold on the Web site are Tijuana Flats originals, including his trademark brand, Smack My Ass and Call Me Sally.

“The idea for the name of my hot sauce came from a Friends episode,” Wheeler said. “Courtney Cox was cooking for a guy and he had just got high before and was acting all goofy. At one point he said smack my ass and called me something. I don’t really remember what the something was, but for some reason I got smack my ass and call me Sally.”

Wheeler has also kept a lot of his original staff that started out with him at the first restaurant. Gerard Salerno was first hired as a prep cook at the first Tijuana Flats location. He is now the area supervisor for South Florida and is in charge of eight locations.

He remembers walking in and seeing Brian hard at work, in the back of the kitchen cooking, the day he applied for a job.

“When I walked in there and got hired, Brian was really working his tail off. So I knew it would be something, but I didn’t know it would go this far,” Salerno said.

Considering the economic recession, Wheeler said he is very fortunate that his restaurant is different from the high-end restaurants like steak houses. He said his restaurant falls into a category where people can go out to eat for a reasonable price, so the recession hasn’t slowed business down yet.

Wheeler found a mentor three years after he started his business and advises students in college to find a mentor now.

“Even if it’s for free, find someone in your field to be your mentor,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than leaving college with only what you learned in your books.”