Sunday, May 20, 2012

Finally Del Taco Came Back

It has been a long wait for so many of us in the South, especially in the Atlanta are. Taco nights featuring real "Del Beef", beans that actually taste like beans and cheap California-style Mexican food that actually is fit to eat had been teasing the taste buds of everyone who remembered them. In fact, it took 20 years for Del Taco to really return since the sale of the East Coast units operated by franchisee WR Grace to Taco Bell in 1992. Many of us have heard the rumors, but those failed to come to fruition. Many of us were also highly disappointed with the low quality of the Del Taco/Mrs. Winners combination units that came and fizzled in the 1995-2003 period. Not only did this damage Del Taco's image in Georgia, but it nearly put Mrs. Winners out of business.

The story of Del Taco was complex since it arrived in a very big way in 1980. While these restaurants were extremely popular, the problems started when the original company stupidly sold the rights to the name in the late 70's, leading to a big mess and a very troubled company in the early 1990's. This is how Del Taco was split into two completely different companies operating the same concept: the western one that is alive and well today and the eastern one owned by WR Grace: the one that ran the Georgia units. The eastern division also had the less common "Taco Villa". Not only did WR Grace sell out those units to what I view is far inferior Taco Bell, but many of those never actually opened as a Taco Bell due to an asbestos issue with all the buildings.

Del Taco Location in former Fazoli's in Snellville, GA. The first photo is of the Kennesaw, GA location prior to opening.

Del Taco drive-thru sign for curiosity at the Snellville, GA location.

Today, the landscape of North Georgia is littered with former Del Taco locations. One in Rome is now a Bojangles. The one in Cartersville is now a Dairy Queen. Krystal took the Acworth and Canton locations. Others have been many independent concepts. I covered the one in Cedartown awhile back that was completely abandoned (and well-preserved). These forgotten locations were not lost on the company, either, as they have made very real strides to come back to the Southeast, and this time they are not riding on the whims of franchisees to do so.

Former Del Taco in Boiling Springs, SC outside of Spartanburg. This photo was taken on June 15, 2010.

Here is a view of the building itself. Note the logo has changed somewhat since this store opened in 2009 (and closed in 2011). Photo taken June 15, 2010.

When Del Taco left the East Coast in 2003, the very last location to leave was a store in St. Simons Island, GA. This location was the only one at that point not to be a co-branded concept, and still sported the WR Grace look. When it closed, the location was replaced with a Chick-Fil-A. In 2009, franchisees John Webber and Rusty Acker were the first to bring Del Taco back, opening a location in Boiling Springs, SC along Hwy 9 outside of Spartanburg. I created a post documenting this hoping to help them promote the location. As the lone wolf in the Taco Bell wilderness, the location did well but the franchisees decided to pull up stakes and closed about a year ago. Situations like this are why Del Taco opted to reopen in Atlanta with company-owned stores. Del Taco is still seeking to return to the Spartanburg Market since that location closed.

Former first generation East Coast Del Taco in Cedartown, GA. This was the only location to remain closed years after it was abandoned in 1992. Photo taken in May 3, 2008.

While the restaurants were far darker, I found the old design more authentic and inviting than the modern concept.

Before the Boiling Springs store opened, Del Taco tried another failed co-branding experiment partnering with Captain D's in Nashville. The locations closed as quickly as they arrived, mostly due to the company seeking to permanently end co-branding concepts after the RTM disaster. Del Taco also opened locations in the Orlando market around this time as well. In addition, a franchisee in Douglasville, GA also announced a future Del Taco location that ultimately never came to fruition.

The Del Taco sign and look sported here was actually not the original look when they arrived in 1980. The original stores were lighter and brighter like they are now. This was a late 1980's redesign. The St. Simons Island, GA location was the last store open to have this look.

Last view of the old, unmodified Del Taco in Cedartown.

Now, after some rocky years financially and many setbacks, Del Taco has finally gotten serious about a return to the Southeast. Their Atlanta return came this February, and it is an ambitious one with 60 planned locations in Atlanta and Athens as well as a return to Macon. So far, Del Taco has opened two locations in the Atlanta market. Their first in Snellville was also, unfortunately, the last remaining Atlanta-area Fazoli's. The Kennesaw location, however, is brand new opening May 9th this year in a recently built-up section along Chastain Road between I-75 and I-575. Oddly, Taco Bell is opening in the former Del Taco/Mrs. Winners combination nearby. Del Taco has also purchased one of the former El Pollo Loco locations on Cobb Parkway in Smyrna and is in the process of converting it. Units in Woodstock and eastern Cobb County are also in the works.

Del Taco taking shape in the former El Pollo Loco location in Smyrna. This was one of my favorite places to eat, but Del Taco definitely tastes better and has more to offer. I once said that I wished that was a Del Taco instead. I guess I'm getting my wish.

If Del Taco meets their 60 store goal is anyone's guess, but the current results are promising. The Snellville location met and exceeded sales goals, and the Kennesaw location draws a regular crowd. Their quality is also excellent, and hopefully will stay that way. I also noted there are plans with a franchisee to expand in the Charlotte market. Franchisee Jeffrey Marx owns the Rock Hill, SC location, and he has plans to expand elsewhere in the Charlotte market eventually. My best guess is that the chance of massive expansion in the Southeast will depend first on how well Del Taco gets re-established in the Atlanta market. Should Taco Bell make a run for the border this time?

NOTE: This is an update of a post written May 29, 2009 about the bumpy road Del Taco has had in the Southeast, and also celebrating their return to Atlanta.