Taco Tico franchise expands

New locations planned for Kentucky

—Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Store owner Ben Johnson poses outside of Taco Taco. A group of investors from Lexington, Kentucky has purchased Tico’s Lexington location and has bought into the franchise.

Taco Tico in Fort Dodge has always done things a little differently.

All the food is made in-house, said Ben Johnson, whose father brought the franchise to Fort Dodge in 1977.

Now, a group of investors from Lexington, Kentucky, is betting they can copy the little store’s success. The Greer Group has purchased Tico’s Lexington location, and has bought into the franchise with plans to open multiple stores all over Kentucky.

“The Greers plan on doing 30 stores over the next seven years,” said Johnson, one of the franchise owners. “It’s going to be great for us. I’m really excited, because these guys know the restaurant business. They know systems we don’t have.”

Johnson has been one of the key owners for some time, and Taco Tico is headquartered in Fort Dodge. Though it might seem like a local staple, the restaurant didn’t actually start here.

—Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Tracy Girard chops up tomatoes on a recent morning at Taco Tico recently to prepare for upcoming graduations. Restaurant owner Ben Johnson said people are often surprised that the food is made fresh right here in the Fort Dodge location.

“Taco Tico started in Wichita, Kansas, which is where my dad is from, about 50 years ago,” Johnson said. “My dad in ’77 brought it to Fort Dodge, Iowa.”

The Kansas stores, founded by the Foleys, weren’t like the Fort Dodge one. Fort Dodge stood alone, so the food had to be made in-house instead of shipped in from a central Taco Tico location.

“Years ago when it was headquartered out of Wichita they had a commissary,” Johnson said. ” We got all the recipes back in the day, so we have a cook station in the back. It’s kind of unique to us to have the cook station, and it was pretty much by default. We were so far away from the central location that we had to do everything from scratch.

“The Greers want to adopt the same program we have, and have the cook station on hand. I’m really excited because that’s been one of, in Iowa that’s been our key success, is having fresh product and doing everything daily, in-store, and having control over the quality.”

Making things fresh isn’t always easy. Sometimes, someone has forgotten to put in the spice, and when it’s discovered 300 pounds of meat has to be thrown away.

—Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Nicholas Haack grates cheese as Taco Tico prepares for another day on a recent morning. The franchise, now headquartered in Fort Dodge, is expanding into multiple locations in Kentucky through Greer Companies.

“It’s not even throwing away the meat; it’s usually two or three hours before we notice it, and people got product that doesn’t taste right. You’re hoping it wasn’t their first time in,” Johnson said.

“It’s not easy doing everything from scratch in your store, but I think it’s the way to go.”

Taco Tico much had a larger presence in Kentucky, which is gone today.

“The franchisee had an issue with the franchisor, or with the franchise itself, so he tried changing the name and changing the recipes,” Johnson said. “Since he did that, the brand just dissolved in Kentucky, because people wanted Tico – they didn’t want something else. So there are a couple of survivors in Kentucky, there’s one in Louisville, and there’s one in Lexington still.”

The Greers learned about Tico from that Lexington store, Johnson said.

“It’s a really small store, and it still does a heck of a business,” he said. “I think they think if we can do what we’re doing with what we have now, it’s something that people will gravitate towards.”

Phil Greer started out as a PE teacher, Johnson said, and grew the Greer Group through careful investments and hard work. Phil now runs it with his son Lee Greer.

Today the Greer Group is an operator of multiple hotel chains including Marriott, Hilton and InterContinental. It has developed, owned and operated over 60 full service independent and national chain restaurants, and several fine casual eateries.

“They’re just go-getters,” Johnson said. “They got into the Cheddar’s franchise pretty heavy, and had multiple 40-plus Cheddar locations that they sold to the Darden group. The Dardens are the ones that own Red Lobster, Olive Garden.”

Johnson feels good about this new deal because the Greers understand the restaurant business, he said.

“The thing I like about them is they really focus on operations. They’re not just investors. They’re really honed in on the quality,” Johnson said. “We’re really going to try, at the new locations, to just go back to the basics, and focus on service, food quality and cleanliness. Kind of the trifecta of owning a great restaurant.”

They have the expertise that Johnson on his own might not.

“We’re kind of a small mom-and-pop right now. And I think the key to being able to grow successfully is having systems and operations in place that are growth-friendly,” he said. “I think they said when they were with Chedder’s at one time, they had 10 stores opening at once.”

Johnson has always been part of the restaurant business.

“My dad had the Wendy’s in town also, so I started working at Wendy’s when I was 11, on the weekends,” he said. “Just helping out in the dining room, toasting buns, just doing little jobs. Then I came here when I was 14, and I’m now 42. So it’s been a long time.”

“It’s one of those things, I remember when we were kids we would watch the Wendy’s International videos. Dad would play the ‘Where’s the Beef’ soundtrack when we’d go to bed, and things.”

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