Rethinking the Brand: On The Border turns itself around!
Operating restaurants in the 2020s has required brands to cast their eyes on just about every aspect of their businesses. From technology and menu innovation to packaging and getting products to customers, the evolution of the restaurant sector in the past 3 years has been transformative. For On The Border, this time frame has required more than refreshing our brand and operations. It has caused us to rethink them.
When the concept was founded in 1982 in Dallas, On The Border was praised for its top-tier margaritas and authentic Tex-Mex food grilled over mesquite wood and served in generous portions. However, as time passed, it was clear the brand lost its way. The food became void of the bold, craveable flavors it was once known for. We saw a significant decrease in traffic as a result. The restaurants and brand became stale in many ways.
So, we set out on a “rethink journey,” and it remains a work in progress, although one in which we’ve already made tremendous strides. We have strategized and prioritized the changes we knew would produce the most significant impact for our customer base. With this customer-centric mindset, we let our guests be our guides and focused on analyzing feedback and sales metrics. From that research, we found three key areas we could build upon: improving our food, modernizing our technology, and strengthening our team.
Where it all began
When conducting our initial research, we found many of our longtime customers said things such as, “The food isn’t what it used to be.” Of course, food is why people come to our restaurants, so we quickly determined that our highest priority with this refresh was to improve the food. Change is difficult in any capacity, and optimizing the food and menu was a challenge. There was a lot of trial and error as we worked to get our menu offerings right. Thankfully, our guests provided us with a lot of feedback throughout the process to help us adjust our recipes.
We were strategic about what needed to be fixed. We removed items that were not up to par with our new standards and focused on the improvement of beans, rice, and taco meat as they are such prominent parts of every single meal. To increase the quality of every meal it was important to ensure these core ingredients were just right.
Now, more guests are raving about the improved food, noting that the flavors we used to be known for are back. We’ve also been finding new ways to innovate our menu throughout the year, bringing back seasonal LTOs like our Barbacoa Enchiladas and Honey-Chipotle Salmon during the brand’s 40th anniversary. We also started monthly themed margaritas.
Modernizing our technology
Another element to our rethink initiative involved investing in our technology and digital platforms. An initial key component of this has been releasing our first rewards program, the Queso Club. The program, meant to be an initial test to gauge consumer interest in a rewards system, ended up being more popular than we anticipated. It was so popular, in fact, that we had to restructure the program to accommodate the high demand. We are currently working to relaunch our rewards program this spring, and while many restaurant brands are cutting back on rewards offers, we are boosting our program by offering more.
Additionally, we recently launched an app for mobile orders and a new website that features online ordering, ensuring that our takeout experience is seamless. These online ordering platforms also allowed us to better integrate with partners like DoorDash and Uber Eats. With the rise in mobile ordering, we were initially worried about alcohol sales as they are such a large part of the business, but we were able to include a system for to-go alcohol. The system accommodated our guests and increased sales.
We’ve also been finding ways to maximize our labor through new technologies and systems, specifically by working with virtual/ghost kitchens. This has allowed us to keep our back-of-house staff and maintain our sales and has remained a prominent part of our operations.
Strengthening our team
Bringing in new members and talent to our leadership team were crucial parts of refreshing our brand. This kicked off with the hiring of our CEO, Tim Ward, in June 2020. He led the discussions on what brand elements needed to be prioritized, providing an impartial, outside perspective on the restaurant and its operations. In addition, the team brought me on as VP of marketing to revamp our brand messaging and marketing materials. I was also able to offer a fresh view on the brand and equip us with innovative, modern strategies.
Our Vice President of Operations Ed Jarvis has been with the brand for 21 years. He has been instrumental in providing this initiative with an inside perspective, lending his knowledge about On The Border’s history. Similarly, our Director of Culinary, Food, and Beverage Daniel Camp has gained a solid understanding of the brand since he joined our team in 2019 and was able to take our feedback about the necessary food changes and make the flavors and offerings better than ever. (Editor: After helping rejuvenate OTB’s menu, Camp moved to Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in April 2023 as Director of Culinary.)
As a result of the team’s efforts on the rethink initiative, guest perceptions have improved. Additionally, sales have grown with checks increasing by 10% since the start of the initiative.
As I mentioned, this journey is far from over. However, these metrics show we are headed in the right direction. We now have the foundational blocks in place with our improved food/menu, our technology, and our team to work on upgrading other elements, such as our new restaurant design prototype.
Suzie Tsai is vice president of marketing at On The Border.
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