With first San Antonio store, Rusty Taco restaurant chain takes on the Texas taco mecca

Photo of Richard Webner

Since it was founded in 2010, Rusty Taco has spread from Dallas to much of the U.S., opening 38 locations in places as far from home as Phoenix, Minneapolis and Maumee, Ohio.

In February, the restaurant chain faced a kind of reckoning — it opened its first restaurant in San Antonio, a city that takes tacos very seriously.

The restaurant, on the North Side near the crossing of Bulverde Road and Loop 1604, offers a menu of street tacos with ingredients ranging from basics such as picadillo and brisket to more flashy fillings such as grilled cauliflower. It sells breakfast tacos all day and has an indoor-outdoor bar where customers can order margaritas.

The chain has inked an agreement with franchisees aiming to open a second restaurant next year and a third after that, said Brendan Mauri, the brand’s president.

RELATED: Vintage photos show what San Antonio’s first Taco Cabana looked like in 1978

“They would love to continue to expand throughout San Antonio and even beyond,” he said. “San Antonio is a big enough market that we may have other partners, but they’re looking to grow the brand themselves in the area. Feedback has been great on this first one, two months in, so they’re excited, as are we.”

The chain was co-founded by Denise Fenton and her husband Rusty Fenton, who died in 2013. The concept was inspired in large part by their family’s visits to taco stands in Texas and Mexico. In 2018, the fast-food chain Arby’s acquired it and Buffalo Wild Wings, forming a new company named Inspire Brands. Since then, Inspire has propelled the chain’s growth as it has acquired other chains including Sonic Drive-In, Jimmy John’s, Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins.

Mauri and Denise Fenton, who is Rusty Taco’s brand director, recently sat for an interview to discuss the chain’s growth, its reception in San Antonio and how they come up with taco recipes. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: The Rusty Taco chain has grown fast, spreading across much of the country.

Fenton: Actually, today is our anniversary — 12 years ago today. Our growth was very organic. We opened up our first location and then not long after we had interest in franchising. We hadn’t really thought about that. Our first franchise location was in St. Paul, Minnesota, and that opened 2011. Then, as word spread, we sort of grew up through the middle of the country, a little to the right, a little to the left.

Q: Did you and your husband have a background in the restaurant industry?

Fenton: Rusty was a lifelong restaurateur. He started out after college in Pappasito’s (Cantina). He grew up in Houston and then moved few years later to Dallas and opened up a concept called Uncle Julio’s with a few partners. Then he went on to do a lot of consulting for other restaurants and did some food manufacturing. So he always had a passion for food and especially loved tacos. We dreamed about owning a taco restaurant — that had been his dream for many, many years. We ate at a lot of taco places with our kids.

RELATED: San Antonio has better tacos than Austin, says ‘Mandalorian’ actor Pedro Pascal

Q: I think your website said there was a particular taco stand that inspired him?

Fenton: Actually, we had a lot of them. We had a favorite one in Dallas called Fuel City. It was a gas station and there were no tables — you literally ordered at a pickup window. We would take our four daughters down to Fuel City in our Suburban and then we just opened up the back doors and ate there in the parking lot. So that was our favorite restaurant.

Q: Could you talk about your family’s decision to sell the chain to Inspire?

Fenton: When Rusty passed away in 2013, he had been planning to talk with Buffalo Wild Wings about helping us to expand. In 2014, we partnered with Buffalo to acquire the majority interest in our brand. Then when Inspire, or Arby’s, bought Buffalo Wild Wings, they completed that transaction.

Q: The chain has been owned by Inspire Brands since 2018. But is the family still involved?

Fenton: I work for Inspire Brands, so they fully own our company.

Mauri: We’re completely owned by Inspire, but we love having Denise as part of the team. All the history plays a huge role in our growth and excitement. But we’re focused on growing the brand through franchising, predominantly.

Q: What made you decide to expand to San Antonio?

Fenton: Rusty always thought that Dallas would be a great market for Texas. He was a little bit nervous about Austin and San Antonio because they are such taco-heavy markets. But he always wanted to make a venture into those areas. With this particular franchise group, they were Arby’s franchisees — or at least one of the partners was — they expressed interest in us. So we had discussions with them and we really liked this group and felt really good energy with them.

Mauri: San Antonio has a love for tacos. And I think our brand, what we see is that we have had success in areas such as Dayton, Ohio, for example, where tacos aren’t as known, but also in towns like this that love tacos. Our brand has breakfast tacos served all day that are some of the best you can get. We know that’s hugely popular in San Antonio, so that fits really well. And then we have simple street tacos with great ingredients. So what we found is our brand fits really well where there’s a lot of competition and choices. We differentiate in certain ways in terms of just the quality of our ingredients and the simplicity and the atmosphere that you see here.

Q: Is your expansion largely driven by where you can find good franchisees?

Mauri: That’s one key criteria. We’re trying to build the brand in the right way, where we’re providing great support but we have the right franchisees that are interested and excited to grow with us. You know, with 38 locations, a franchisee coming in has an opportunity to select premier real estate within the areas they’re looking at, in most cases. And then also really work with us to put their stamp on the brand as we grow and expand.

RELATED: Check out 365 days of Tacos

Q: How do you come up with the tacos on your menu?

Fenton: Our original menu was inspired by just our travels as a family and what kind of tacos Rusty and I and the girls really liked and enjoyed. So we started with 11 tacos. That first year, we added on a few more.

Mauri: Street tacos are our core — we never want to lose sight of that. But that said, we want to evolve as tastes change. Also, what we see is we have a lot of guests that love the brand and use it very frequently for all sorts of different occasions. So particularly those guests enjoy seeing new flavors. What we’ve done is created limited-time tacos every couple of months. What we found was we would create those and then once we would take them off the menu people would continue to ask for them. So in the past year we launched a specialty taco section of the menu that kind of complements the street tacos section. It’s a little bit more more ingredients, a little more flavorful, indulgent tacos. We have a huge variety of different options, which is one thing I think differentiates us in terms of other Mexican concepts.

Q: You would call this a fast casual chain, right?

Mauri: Yeah, I think we’re fast casual, but elevated, especially when you consider the bar aspect in terms of this particular location’s got a great bar. So I think we’re elevated compared to some fast-casuals, but we’re kind of in that segment.

Fenton: People love to hang out, kick back, a big margarita.

Q: Is that kind of the definition of fast casual — higher-quality ingredients than fast food and somewhere you want to spend time?

Mauri: I think so, yeah. I think in the restaurant industry, the terms are constantly evolving and you’re seeing some fast-casuals shift closer to (fast food restaurants), implementing drive-throughs, things like that. That’s something actually some of our franchisees — not this one — some of our future openings are going to have a mobile order pickup window.

Q: If I could delve into retail history, was fast casual a segment pioneered by Chipotle?

Mauri: That’s one of the biggest ones, obviously. They’ve built, you know, close to 3,000 locations. Panera would be another one. There’s a few brands that I think kind of took that and elevated from fast food and created the category. But I think it’s ever-evolving with brands like ours that are even maybe taking it much more to an experiential level than a Chipotle.

Q: Who do you consider your competitors, especially here in San Antonio?

Mauri: We feel like we actually have a really nice “white space” in terms of there’s some taco restaurants or Mexican restaurants that are more fast food, that are lower price-point, more quick-and-easy, in-and-out. I think we have an elevated experience, better quality food, a place you might enjoy staying for longer, and also the bar atmosphere. And then there’s other taco players that I think do a great job, you know, Velvet Taco and Torchy’s I know have come into San Antonio as well. They play a little bit differently than us, too, in terms of we’re much more laid back, a little bit lower price point, street tacos that are a little more simple, great-quality ingredients but not necessarily as over-the-top.

RELATED: Trendy Georgia taco chain Rusty Taco to open first San Antonio restaurant at Bulverde Road and Loop 1604

Q: In San Antonio, which has such a strong taco culture, do you find that people are skeptical of the new kid on the block?

Mauri: I think this particular neighborhood was excited for something new to come in and the feedback’s been great in terms of just the quality of our ingredients. You know, we do all of our sauces and salsas scratch-made every day. And then also just the environment, where at this location and a lot of our new builds we have a full bar with margaritas and other drinks. And then you’ve got the bar connected to the patio. That’s another thing we found, that San Antonio is a great market to have outdoor dining most of the year. It fits really well with just a great “neighborhood taco stand” environment.