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Food

Taco John’s shows off its street smarts

Photograph courtesy of Taco John's

The word “street” in the description of Taco John’s Sirloin Steak Street Tacos is intended to signal authenticity, a characteristic that resonates with today’s diners. “Although street tacos are becoming more familiar, they still have an exciting appeal to our customers,” says Bob Karisny, VP of menu strategy and innovation. The chain reinforces the authentic messaging by calling out garlic-lime sauce and crumbled Mexican cheese as part of the preparation. That, combined with a new filling option of sirloin steak—an elevated beef cut compared to its other protein choices—convinced 59% of consumers surveyed by Technomic’s MenuSurf to say they would order the item after reading is description.

Strategic sourcing

How is a quick-service chain able to menu sirloin steak—a premium protein—and sell it as a limited-time taco trio for $5? “We looked through several cuts and loved the flavor and tenderness of tri-tip sirloin, but it’s a challenge for a QSR,” says Karisny. “It’s an expensive cut and we don’t have the facilities to cook it from raw.” So Taco John’s found a vendor that specializes in tri-tip, and after the 392-unit chain committed to purchasing in volume over a long period of time, the two parties negotiated an affordable price, he says. At first, the tacos were tested with presliced, cooked sirloin, but the meat lost some of its texture and tenderness upon reheating. Now the supplier delivers it as a whole, lightly seasoned cooked tri-tip and the beef is hand-cut in each location.

How authentic can you get?

Although consumers value authenticity, Taco John’s units are mostly located in the heartland, “so we have to pull back a bit on the Mexican names and ingredients,” says Karisny. In developing the street tacos, he created a cilantro chimichurri and sourced queso fresco for the dish, but the menu identifies them as garlic-lime sauce and Mexican cheese for better recognition with guests. Originally, the R&D team tried an unfried corn tortilla like those used in Mexican taquerias, “but it was too peculiar for our customers,” says Karisny. Instead, he sources a half-flour, half-corn tortilla in a 5-inch street taco size. The reception has been very positive, he adds.

Steak spurs sales

The steak street tacos were the highest-selling item on the menu throughout the promotion, without leveling off, says Karisny. Previously, when steak was featured, consumers lost interest in the protein, and Taco John’s had to pull it from the menu, as it was too expensive to be a slow mover, he adds. But thanks to the excitement around street tacos, the anticipation of bold flavors and an attractive price, this LTO was a success. In the long term, Taco John’s is cross-utilizing the sirloin tri-tip in burritos, nachos and other items, creating consistent purchasing to keep meat costs stable. And now that the promotion is over, consumers will be charged a premium when ordering steak with any menu item. 

Who would purchase? 

Millennials are most likely to order the Sirloin Steak Street Tacos, with 69% of that age group being potential purchasers, according to MenuSurf data. That jibes with Taco John’s research, which indicates that street tacos skew younger in the chain’s guest profile. And Gen X consumers are close behind, with 67% saying they would purchase the item based on its description.

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