Tacone Grill Offers Fresh Menu

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Justin Walker, owner of Tacone Flavor Grill at The River in Rancho Mirage, says the restaurant chain uses fresh, leaner and healthier products, referring to ...

Justin Walker says the design of his new Tacone Flavor Grill franchise now matches the food.

The restaurant at The River in Rancho Mirage is the Los Angeles-based chain's second location in the Inland Empire and points east.

"This is a brand-new prototype for this restaurant," Walker said, noting new features include booth seating, a kitchen that's visible to diners, hardwood floors, new uniforms and counter seating.

"The food has always been very eclectic and fusion-oriented and sophisticated for the price point," he said. "We're best known for our gourmet wraps and grilled paninis, as much as our fresh salads and homemade soups." The restaurant chain uses fresh, leaner and healthier products, Walker said, referring to the vegetables, chicken, shrimp and filet mignon steak.

"We're very particular about the proteins we use and where we buy it," he said, noting the food is made to order.

Tacone's "Flavor Bar," which contains its various sauces and dressings, also is "a big feature for us," Walker said.

"I think what sets us apart is a global selection," he said, citing menu items with influences such as Thai, Southern, Jamaican and Cuban.

"I think we're serving food items you can't find anywhere else," said Craig Albert, co-founder and president of Flavor Firm, franchiser of Tacone Flavor Grill. "We're just trying to serve a better experience at our price point." The company's first Tacone restaurant opened 10 years ago in Century City, Albert said, noting the taco in a cone was one of the main menu items then. "From the beginning, Tacone was about innovation and trying to create unique products." "I think our design is unique. It's comfortable. I think the Flavor Bar is one of the highlights," Albert said. "We're using fresh ingredients." Where possible, the restaurant chain uses free-range, antibiotic-free and hormone-free meat and poultry, he said. "I think that's where the market is heading." Using fresh ingredients is a growing trend among fast- or quick-casual restaurants, said Janet Lowder, president of Restaurant Management Services, a Rancho Palos Verdes-based restaurant consulting firm.

Some are using organic foods, she added.

"It's just offering the consumer healthier choices," Lowder said. "I think we'll see more of the movement, too." Albert said more than 20 Tacone Flavor Grill restaurants are currently open. The franchises are located in California, Arizona, Nevada and Washington.

Walker said he and Albert are friends, and Albert approached him two years ago about opening sites in the Inland Empire.

"Because I have a knowledge of the Inland Empire and what a growth area it is, I decided to purchase the whole territory," said Walker, who became the regional developer for the Inland Empire in July 2004. There are four more restaurants planned in Riverside County outside the Coachella Valley.

Walker has previously worked in the restaurant industry, managing two restaurants in the early 1990s in New York City.

"There were a lot of experiences I took from those restaurants that I use every day," he said.

As a regional developer, Walker oversees Tacone franchisees in his territory, which covers all of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, plus the Pasadena area in Los Angeles County, he said.

Walker helped a franchisee open a Tacone Flavor Grill at Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga 16 months ago.

He does site selection, build-out consultation, training and orientation, and then the Tacone corporate chefs provide training in the new restaurants.

Walker said he signed the lease at The River in May 2005. The restaurant opened in February. It is the first location he has owned, he said. "The regional developers/directors, under our contract, are required to own at least one store.

"The River is a place we've been looking at for a long time, and then this spot became available," Walker said. The space was previously occupied by Il Tango.

"When I look at locations, I welcome the complementary competitor," he said, referring to Baja Fresh and Starbucks.

Walker said he is managing the Rancho Mirage restaurant for the remainder of the season. He employs 16 people, including an assistant store manager.

The startup cost for a Tacone franchise is typically between $350,000 and $500,000, depending on the size of the store, he said.

Walker said the chain average for gross sales per unit in 2005 was just under $700,000.

The company has sold more than 150 franchises to date, Albert said. About 15 restaurants are scheduled to open this year in California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Rhode Island.

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