Tijuana Flats hires turnaround pro James Greco as CEO

Greco, former CEO of Bruegger's and Sbarro, steps in as the fast-casual Tex-Mex chain navigates bankruptcy under new ownership.
Tijuana Flats
Tijuana Flats has 91 units following the closure of 40 company locations earlier this year. | Photo: Shutterstock

Tijuana Flats has a new CEO who will lead the brand through its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and planned turnaround.

James Greco, a former CEO of both Bruegger’s and Sbarro, was named CEO of the Orlando, Florida-based Tijuana Flats on Monday.  The fast-casual Tex-Mex chain was acquired by Flatheads LLC in April after filing for bankruptcy protection and shuttering 40 restaurants this year.

At the time, the company said former CEO Joe Christina would remain as CEO. But Greco was brought in to lead a turnaround.

At Bruegger’s, where he was CEO from 2003 to 2011, Greco is credited with reversing years of sales declines into 19 consecutive quarters of same-store sales increases, the unit count grew 30% and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or EBITA, increased fourfold, according to a press release from Tijuana Flats.

He also led the sale of Bruegger’s to Groupe LeDuff, before moving to Sbarro in 2012, where he led that brand for about a year following a bankruptcy there.

Greco also served as president and COO of Newk’s Eatery from 2014 to 2016. Last year, he reportedly launched a restaurant investment firm called Paramount Restaurant Group with real estate developer Michael Belfonti, which at the time planned to acquire limited-service restaurant brands.  It’s not clear whether that group is affiliated with Flatheads LLC.

“We believe in the future potential of the Tijuana Flats brand,” said a statement from the ownership of Tijuana Flats, that was not identified. “Jim is a tenured industry veteran who has a proven track record of revitalizing restaurant businesses thereby creating jobs, fostering community development and building shareholder value. He is the right leader for Tijuana Flats at this momentous time as we work to unlock the full potential of this brand.”

James Greco

James Greco. | Photo courtesy of Tijuana Flats

In addition, Tijuana Flats hired Ingrid Hebel as vice president of operations. The company said Hebel has deep experience in all levels of operations leadership, and that she has led large teams through times of change, but no details were available, except that she serves on the board of the Florida Restaurant Association, Central Florida Chapter. According to her LinkedIn profile, she is a former vice president of operations with Red Lobster.

Red Lobster filed bankruptcy in May, and has closed nearly 100 units.

Tijuana Flats, likewise, started the year with 105 company-owned units, according to sister brand Technomic. This year, 40 have closed. Franchisees operate 26 units for a system total of 91 in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“Tijuana Flats is a great brand that is meaningfully differentiated and provides a platform to build upon to create a memorable guest experience,” said Greco in a statement. “We will revitalize the business by implementing initiatives focusing on the four brand basics of people, place, product and positioning.”

Tijuana Flats’ bankruptcy was blamed on a “confluence of adverse events,” including defaulting on debt obligations, an expansion of the menu that required more equipment and staffing, and rising food and labor costs.

New owner Flatheads LLC is listed as based in Encino, California, according to court documents.

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