Inspire Brands reveals plans for its 3rd brand, now Rusty Taco

Photograph courtesy of Inspire Brands

Amid efforts to revive Buffalo Wild Wings, new owner Inspire Brands is also making changes to the small fast-casual chain that was part of the casual powerhouse’s $2.9 billion acquisition. Inspire is switching the name of 27-unit R Taco back to Rusty Taco, reversing a decision by prior management.

The resurrection of the taco concept’s original name fits the intention of the brand’s co-founders, the late Rusty Fenton and his widow, Denise Fenton. The couple wanted customers to know there was an actual person behind the venture, and used the name Rusty Taco while they controlled and franchised the brand. After a majority stake was acquired by Buffalo Wild Wings as part of the larger chain’s efforts to secure a new growth vehicle, the venture’s name was changed in 2015 to R Taco for the stated purpose of avoiding confusion in new markets about what Rusty Taco meant.

Inspire, which completed its acquisition of Buffalo Wild Wings and R Taco in February, said it wants to revive the story of how the Fentons and their four daughters created the concept out of an abandoned gas station in their hometown of Dallas. The story is recounted in every store via pictures.

“We share that story inside the restaurants because we want people to know there was a Rusty,” Denise Fenton, now Rusty Taco’s brand director, explains on Inspire’s website. “Rusty Taco is named after a man who had a vision, a dream and who was passionate about food, family and the community.”

Fenton said she knew something was afoot when she looked up one day inside the original Rusty Taco location and saw Paul Brown, now Inspire’s CEO, walking into the restaurant with a group of people. Brown’s charge at the time, the Arby’s quick-service chain, had acquired Buffalo Wild Wings and R Taco as a packaged deal.

“I introduced myself, and Paul said he loved the name Rusty Taco,” Fenton says in a section of Inspire’s website devoted to stories about the company’s employees and brands. “I think he saw this as a brand with a story behind it. There was a man named Rusty who had a dream and chased that dream. Paul is very connected to people and their story, and he took the time to find out ours.”

Rusty Fenton died of cancer in 2013, three years after opening the first Rusty Taco. A controlling stake in the brand was acquired by Buffalo Wild Wings for an undisclosed price roughly a year after Fenton’s death.

Some observers had wondered if Inspire would sell R Taco following the acquisition to offset the big outlay it made. That speculation was dashed by Inspire’s recruitment of Tim Casey, a former president of the Qdoba Mexican Eats quick-service chain, as R Taco’s brand chief. The appointment came before Inspire had made any visible changes to Buffalo Wild Wings, a 1,200-unit brand that had been publicly owned.

Recently, Inspire revealed some changes for the larger holding. Buffalo Wild Wings is embarking on its first new TV ad campaign in 18 months, along with several new draws that are tied to fantasy football and the launch of the NFL season.

R Taco is part of an ongoing wave of fast-casual taco specialists. Usually cited as direct competitors are Torchy’s Tacos, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and Velvet Taco, all of which have relatively new leadership.

A stake in the concept was acquired by Buffalo Wild Wings in its search for a new growth vehicle for franchisees. It also purchased an interest in PizzaRev, a fast-casual pizza concept, but backed out of that collaboration. 

The rechristening of the concept will officially begin Sept. 8 with a party at the original Rusty Taco, with music provided by Rusty Fenton’s best friend, recording star Jayson Bales.


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