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Emerging Brands

5 things to know about: Tacos 4 Life

How a mission-driven taco concept shook up its under-utilized drive-thrus during a crisis.
Photo courtesy of Tacos 4 Life

Buzzworthy Brands is a bi-weekly Restaurant Business podcast and feature highlighting innovative growth brands. Listen to the conversation with Tacos 4 Life founder and CEO Austin Samuelson here.

 

Austin Samuelson was working in commercial real estate in Southern California a decade ago and had zero restaurant experience. But he and his wife, Ashton, became focused on the cause of easing hunger around the globe and wanted to find a way to make a difference.

Inspired by the buy-a-pair, donate-a-pair model of Toms shoes, the couple decided to develop a taco restaurant that would donate a meal for every taco sold.

“We were very naive,” Austin Samuelson said. “Having never worked in a restaurant before, we thought, ‘It’s just such a fun industry.’ It was a very fun idea in our mind.”

Six years since opening the first Tacos 4 Life, some of that naivete has worn away. The Samuelsons, who’ve sinced moved to Arkansas, just opened the 18th location of their fast-casual concept and recently celebrated the donation of the chain’s 15 millionth meal.

Tacos 4 Life

Here are five more things to know about Tacos 4 Life:

  1. The restaurant is guided by a mission but it remains a for-profit business, donating 24 cents from every item ordered to an anti-hunger organization called Feed My Starving Children. “We have to work that much harder, be that much more competitive to bring a profit to the bottom line because, right off the top, we’re sending this donation out,” Samuelson said.
  2. All but three Tacos 4 Life stores have drive-thrus. But slow throughput times and lack of strategic labor deployment caused them to be under-utilized until the pandemic, he said. Since then, the chain has done “100 little things” to shift the focus to the drive-thrus, improving speed, better communicating their existence to customers and redeploying workers.
  3. Future stores might get smaller. Right now, the prototypical unit is 3,800 square feet with about 120 seats. The chain is about to start construction on a 3,000-square-foot standalone location with 100 seats. “I still believe takeout and to-go is going to be important,” Samuelson said. “There’s still going to be a desire and a need to go and eat some place. We still want to be able to provide that.”
  4. The chain works hard to communicate its mission to customers. Stores have electronic meal counter boards, showing how much food has been donated. And Taco 4 Life’s app tells users how many meals they’ve personally donated through their orders. “People come to eat with us because of the food,” he said. “And then they feel really good. They feel connected. They feel like they want to tell others about us because of the mission.”
  5. Rather than slowing down, Samuelson said the brand has become more bullish on growth since the pandemic. The chain plans to open five to seven units next year. Currently 12 of the 18 units are company-owned. “We laid a foundation,” he said. “We proved out the business model and we’re in a strong position to grow.”

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