When Bob Phillips and Keith Goldman first encountered California Tortilla in Bethesda, Maryland in the mid-1990s, they were initially drawn in by the lines out the door. What brought them back over and over again, however, was the restaurant’s sense of humor, wacky promotions and delicious food. Seasoned restaurant operators and business partners with ample franchising experience, the two opened the third-ever California Tortilla 18 years ago and quickly made their mark on the young company. Recognizing the potential of the brand, Phillips and Goldman bought a majority stake in California Tortilla and shifted its identity to a food-first brand while still maintaining its fun-loving atmosphere.
As CEO and COO, respectively, the two have championed the brand’s success ever since, growing California Tortilla to a 40-plus unit brand with a strong presence in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. that is now expanding across the nation through franchising. After opening five new locations in 2018, the brand is preparing to open six more locations this year—breaking into the inland states of Tennessee and Kansas, at that.
California Tortilla’s inception was well-timed. By the time it began offering franchise opportunities in 2003, the brand had become a fully-formed fast-casual concept long before the now-dominant sector of the restaurant industry reigned supreme. The segment has since exploded, with California Tortilla ahead of the curve in delivering customers with a high-quality offering in an expedited manner.
“In the restaurant industry, fast casual is the top-performing sector,” Phillips noted. “Within that, the Mexican food segment is the top-performing subcategory. We exist at the intersection of these consumer preferences, a sweet spot that is still growing.”
Where California Tortilla sets itself apart from competing brands in both the Mexican food category and fast-casual sector, however, is that food-first mentality Phillips and Goldman established. At Cal Tort (the brand’s affable nickname), fresh ingredients are a priority—so much so, in fact, that it doesn’t even install freezers on restaurant premises and receives shipments of fresh produce up to four times per week.
“Most restaurants are set up where customers walk down the line and choose what they want. At Cal Tort, you can get both signature items and your own creation,” said Director of Marketing Karen Dawit. “The inspiration for our signature items come from flavors inspired by the global community; both our permanent and rotating options are unique and made with ingredients that seem impossible to combine, but are amazing.” Such items include Crunchy BBQ Ranch or Blackened Chicken Caesar, among others, that can be spiced up to a customer’s desire thanks the Wall of Flame, a collection of more than 75 different hot sauces available at each Cal Tort location.
The brand is further refining its menu and processes with a smaller-scale rebrand in 2019, one that Phillips said will involve implementing a new operating system optimized for the brand’s unique business model that accommodates down-the-line orders and signature item creations in the same space.
“As it relates to the way we prepare our food, the type of food we make, and our signature items, changing our format brings added benefits in terms of labor cost and order assurance that will make a significant difference to those investing in the brand,” Phillips said. “Its impact on training, for example, will be huge; [the new operating system] shortens employee onboarding to a matter of days. We’re consolidating from three point-of-sale systems to one, allowing us to better deliver the level of quality customers demand with a high degree of accuracy while reducing overhead and labor costs in the process.”
As California Tortilla continues evolving its business model to better meet the needs of its customers and franchisees in 2019 and beyond, the brand is seeking passionate, creative entrepreneurs with restaurant experience to join its ever-growing system. Its most successful franchisees with the brand act as “the mayor of their restaurants,” Phillips said—those that are involved in their community, have energy and are great at making connections.
The most sought-after quality in a California Tortilla franchise candidate, though, is that same food-first focus upon which the brand was founded. “People who appreciate flavor and can get behind creative food options—those are the people primed to succeed with Cal Tort,” Phillips said. The brand is currently pursuing growth opportunities in Raleigh, North Carolina, New Jersey and Richmond, Virginia, among other Southeastern locales.
The investment range for a California Tortilla franchise ranges from $402,400 to $697,000, including a $40,000 initial franchise fee. For more information on available opportunities, please visit https://franchise.californiatortilla.com.