The Rise And Fall Of Taco Bueno

Taco Bell may be the most numerous fast-food Mexican chain in the U.S., but Texas-based Taco Bueno has its share of devoted followers. Since its start in 1967, Taco Bueno has amassed fans of its Tex-Mex-style cuisine. At one time, Taco Bueno could be found in seven states. However, many franchises have since closed. Today, you can only find Taco Bueno locations in Texas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas.

Devotees of the Tex-Mex restaurant celebrate the trademarked Muchaco, a soft taco wrapped up with pillowy pita bread instead of the traditional tortilla. Connoisseurs of Mexican fast food restaurants also suggest ordering the platter rather than a-la-carte. Platters come loaded with Mexican rice, tortilla chips, refried beans, sour cream, and guacamole.

As beloved as Taco Bueno may be, the fast food restaurant has fallen on hard times. Heavy debt and bad weather in the fall of 2018 led to a shortage in liquidity for Taco Bueno. To stay afloat, the chain had to offload its debt, and it needed to do it fast. But to understand the rise and fall of Taco Bueno, we need to start at the beginning of the story in Abilene, Texas, in 1967.

The first Taco Bueno began in Texas in 1967

Taco Bueno was founded in Abilene, Texas, in 1967 by Bill R. Waugh, an art graduate from Abilene Christian University. With his brother as a partner, the two began selling Mexican food with a Texas twist that became popular thanks to fresh ingredients and innovative recipes. Waugh would go on to open other fast-food restaurants, including a pizza joint and burger chain. But Taco Bueno was his first foray into restaurant ownership.

Although Tex-Mex cuisine had been around in Texas since the 1880s, the term "Tex-Mex" wouldn't be coined until the 1970s when British cookbook author Diana Kennedy popularized the term. Tex-Mex is an American regional cuisine with its roots in Mexican cooking. Popular Tex-Mex recipes include enchiladas, tamales, chili con carne, and fajitas. From the beginning, Taco Bueno offered a fresh take on Mexican food. The refried beans simmered overnight, the salsas were prepared daily with fresh ingredients, and the chips and taco shells were fried every morning.

Taco Bueno helped spread Tex-Mex cuisine throughout the American South and Southwest

In the beginning, the term "Tex-Mex" did not refer to food but rather to the Texas-Mexican Railway of the 1800s. It was also what some people called people of Mexican descent who were born in Texas. Though originally not called Tex-Mex cuisine, it started in Texas with the Tejanos. Tejanos are Texans of Mexican descent. The authentically American cuisine is a fusion of Mexican and Spanish foods with an American influence. Since the early days when they could only be found in the Southwest, Tex-Mex restaurants can now be found across the United States and in other countries.

Tex-Mex restaurants first began to open in large cities in the southwest with heavy Mexican populations. Casual food joints, like Taco Bueno, helped the popularity of Tex-Mex cuisine to spread among Americans, and it became a trendy food for the younger generations. As Taco Bueno expanded its restaurants and moved into other states, more and more Americans could easily obtain a Tex-Mex-style meal.

Taco Bueno was on the heels of Taco Bell

When Taco Bueno began in the late '60s, fast food was becoming a more widespread option for American dining habits. It was a trend that took off in the '50s at the same time that America's highway system was expanding. Taco Bell opened its first restaurant in Downey, California in 1962, just five years before Taco Bueno was founded in Abilene. While Taco Bell locations would grow to spread across the nation, Taco Bueno stayed within a regional market.

It was the hard taco shell that changed the game for Mexican fast food. The invention of the crispy shell made Mexican-style fast food possible. Before the hard shell, soft tacos were made to order. But the deep-fried U-shaped crispy corn tortilla could be filled ahead of time, and customers could be served faster. This, along with tasty food, was needed for a take-out restaurant to be successful. Although the founder of Taco Bell claimed to have invented the hard taco shell, there is plenty of evidence that hard-shelled tacos had already been around for decades.

The second Taco Bueno opened in Tulsa in 1972

After running the Taco Bueno in Abilene for several years, Waugh decided to expand his restaurant into Oklahoma. Although Waugh had attended school in Abilene, he was born in Oklahoma and moved back to the state in 1972. It was that year he opened his second Taco Bueno location in Tulsa, which was the first in Oklahoma.

Waugh quickly opened four more stores in Tulsa, and Taco Bueno was an instant hit in the state. In fact, eight of the first 10 locations were in Oklahoma. Part of Taco Bueno's success in Oklahoma was thanks to its uniqueness. Although there were plenty of dine-in Mexican restaurants in Tulsa, Taco

Bueno remained the only fast-food Tex-Mex restaurant in the city until the mid-1980s. In 2017, Taco Bueno was named the most popular fast-food chain in Oklahoma by Business Insider. At one time there were 64 locations in Oklahoma, although today the number has dropped to 46.

Fresh ingredients help Taco Bueno stand apart from the competition

Even though it sells fast food, Taco's Bueno's rise in popularity was due to its fresh ingredients at fast food prices. Since the first restaurant's opening, Taco Bueno made its refried beans in-house by simmering pinto beans in a blend of seasonings for 35 hours. Some of the richness of flavor may come from rendered bacon fat, as seen in Taco Bueno's ingredients list. In contrast, it's been revealed by an employee on TikTok that Taco Bell makes its refried beans by adding hot water to dehydrated beans. After mixing this for several minutes, Taco Bell's refried beans are done.

Taco Bueno deep fries its chips and taco shells in its stores daily. The salsas are also made daily using fresh vegetables. Finally, the guacamole is made every morning with fresh avocados. Taco Bueno's cult following, sometimes called "Bueno Heads," appreciated the restaurant's use of whole foods rather than the overly processed state of other fast food options.

Bill Waugh sold Taco Bueno in 1981, and it's seen a series of owners ever since

By the 1980s, Bill Waugh owned three chains of restaurants, Taco Bueno, Crystal's Pizza, and a dine-in Mexican restaurant, Casa Bonita. They all were under Casa Bonita's corporate umbrella. In 1981, Waugh sold Casa Bonita, and all his restaurants, to the British food company, Unigate. This was a decision he immediately regretted.

In a 1989 interview with Abilene Christian University's student-led TV station, Waugh said selling the company "was the biggest mistake we ever made." Waugh explained he wanted to buy back the contract, "but they wouldn't sell it back to me." Waugh stayed with the company and ran things for Unigate for several years before moving on to his next venture.

After Waugh let go of Taco Bueno, the chain saw a series of different owners. Unigate sold the company to CKE Restaurants Inc. (of Carls Jr.) in 1996. Just five years later, in 2001, CKE Restaurants, steeped in debt at the time, sold its Taco Bueno stores to Jacobson Partners for $72.5 million. In 2005, Jacobson Partners sold Taco Bueno to Palladium Equity Partners, who owned the company for 10 years before selling it to TPG Growth in 2015. Finally, we come to the current owner, Sun Holdings, which has owned Taco Bueno since 2019.

Taco Bueno set the breakfast trend before Taco Bell

The term "breakfast burrito" can be traced back to the '70s in New Mexico, although wrapping a warm tortilla around breakfast ingredients had likely been going on a lot longer in Mexico. Breakfast burritos didn't become popular in mainstream fast-food dining until the late 1980s when McDonald's began serving them. Today, you can grab a fast food breakfast burrito just about anywhere, including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Taco Bell.

Although Taco Bell breakfast is popular today, the fast food chain didn't actually begin serving breakfast until 2014. Taco Bueno beat them to the breakfast trend seven years earlier when they served breakfast items in 2007. On the menu were breakfast burritos, breakfast platters, breakfast quesadillas, and even breakfast tacos.

However, breakfast at Taco Bueno wasn't to last. The restaurant discontinued its breakfast lineup around 2018. Some Taco Bueno fans took this hard, and today you can even find a petition on requesting Taco Bueno bring back breakfast. Unfortunately for the Taco Bueno breakfast lovers, the petition never gathered much steam, only amassing about a dozen signatures.

Taco Bueno's expansion attempts in 2015

Taco Bueno continued to grow during the early 2000s and 2010s. By the time TPG Growth had acquired the company in 2015, Taco Bueno was already in six states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Arkansas. With TPG Growth, Taco Bueno expanded into Colorado, opening three stores in 2015. In all, the company had 175 stores in seven states. Perhaps at the height of its popularity, Business Insider reported the restaurant was named "America's favorite Mexican chain" by Market Force Information in 2016.

With the new owner, Taco Bueno began a new marketing campaign to highlight its fresh ingredients to be more appealing to a younger crowd. The company also branched out into delivery for the first time in 2015 with a partnership with Tapingo. The deal with Tapingo was exclusively for students at the University of Oklahoma with the goal to "better engage our Millennial guests," the CMO at the time, Jeff Carl told QSR Magazine.

Taco Bueno was featured on Undercover Boss

Just one year before Taco Bueno was to declare bankruptcy, then CEO, Michael Roper went undercover at several of his restaurants on the TV Show, "Undercover Boss" in 2017. For those unfamiliar, "Undercover Boss" is a TV show, where upper management disguises themselves as entry-level employees to get a glimpse of their company from a different perspective. The show has been both praised for shining a light on the lives of workers and criticized for exploiting lower-level employees to applaud the virtues of the executives.

Back to Taco Bueno ... When Roper went undercover at his Taco Bueno stores he met an assistant manager with medical problems and a crew member in debt due to a motorcycle injury. Roper told the Tulsa World, "lives would be changed as a result of his undercover work." After paying their medical bills, and giving them training or advancements, Roper also provided all-expense-paid vacations for the two employees.

Bankruptcy and then a rescue

Things began to go badly for Taco Bueno after its "Undercover Boss" appearance. We can't say if there was any relation to the show, but CEO Michael Roper left the company later that same year. And by the end of the following year, in 2018, Taco Bueno's new CEO, Omar Janjua, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Taco Bueno was already in debt in mid-2018, but still hanging on with plans to restructure and find a new buyer.

However, a torrential amount of rain hit the Dallas area in the fall leading to a 20% decline in Taco Bueno sales. This latest loss was too much for the beleaguered company to absorb. Stores were struggling to even pay landowners rent on their leases. To add to Taco Bueno's problems, a credit card breach from cards used at certain Taco Bueno locations was discovered in November. That same month, Taco Bueno declared bankruptcy and was acquired by American holding company, Sun Holdings. Sun Holdings assumed Taco Bueno's debt and bailed the chain out for $10 million.

What is the state of Taco Bueno today?

Taco Bueno survived its bankruptcy declaration and still has stores in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. In 2019, the company announced a menu upgrade to bring it back to its original 1967 roots with fresh, high-quality ingredients. Sun Holdings hired Dallas-based ad agency, Plein Air, to kick off a new campaign to get the word out that Taco Bueno still serves high-quality Tex-Mex fast food.

Changes to the menu included bringing back Coca-Cola products and the return of the original fan-favorite queso dip recipe. The chain still claims to slow cook its beans for 35 hours, make its salsa and guacamole fresh every day, and fry its taco shells and chips in-house. Taco Bueno's menu today contains a wide variety of options including tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and platters. Some signature dishes include the Muchacho, potato burrito, and MexiDips and chips. Aside from a variety of combo options, you can also get a taco salad inside a fried tortilla bowl or a nacho salad.

Some customers complain of a decline in quality

The question remains, did Taco Bueno's revamping in 2019 result in better food? Its cult following has waned over the years and recent reviews of Taco Bueno restaurants online are not complimentary. Reviewers routinely complain about service and the quality of the food. According to a poster on Reddit, "They [Taco Bueno] do not care about how clean the stores are, how good or bad the food is, and the customer experience is not even close to a priority."

Facebook reviews for a location in Greenville, Texas are riddled with complaints of long waits in the drive-thru line and burnt food with one poster stating, "This has got to be the most awful place in Greenville." We can't write off a chain based on one location, however, and there are still some claiming to be loyal to the brand. As a poster said on the subreddit, Dallas, "I am a die hard BuenoHead. There are dozens of us!"