Chronic Tacos names Red Tettemer O'Connell + Partners as its first AOR

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The California-based chain has gone national, so the brand hired its first advertising agency to unify what it means to serve a "badass taco."

Chronic Tacos, the California-Mexican restaurant chain synonymous with "Jackass" star Jason "Wee Man" Acuña, has named its first advertising AOR Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners, the bi-coastal agency that markets MorningStar Farms. Pairing a brand built on street cred with an agency hocking wholesome, vegetarian fare might seem odd, but RTO+P VP of Strategy Adam Leaventon said its franchise work is what attracted the client.

"I think what really clicked was that we had worked on brands like Planet Fitness," he said. "We have a lot of experience with franchise-based brands, which is a little bit of a specialty because you're obviously working with many different stakeholders. With Planet Fitness, we started when they were about 300 doors and helped them grow to about 1,200 doors and eventually go public."

And that’s precisely the type of growth Chronic Tacos is planning, said CEO Michael Mohammed. In 2002, two friends opened the chain's first restaurant in Newport Beach, Calif. because they couldn’t find any decent Mexican food when they had the munchies ("chronic" refers to a high quality strain of marijuana). Now, it’s expanded to 44 restaurants in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Utah, Washington and even Canada. This year, the company expects to open 25 more locations nationwide, which means that the brand message is at risk of becoming muddled.

"Our biggest challenge is that with growth, we don't want that to get ahead of us, so we're probably investing in a marketing agency earlier than, I would say, brands usually do," Mohammed said. "But with the momentum that we see, we feel it's important to have [an agency], so that our franchises in new markets are on brand and that there is a consistent feel."

Until now, Chronic Tacos didn’t have an advertising agency. Instead, it relied on Blaze PR to publicize its professional taco eating contests that attracted household names like Takeru Kobayashi. It also generated buzz around restaurant openings by giving away one taco a week for a year to the first 100 customers, which led to lines out the door. Its celebrity connections also stimulated media attention as reality TV star and Chronic Tacos franchise owner Acuña would occasionally make appearances. Even its hot sauce is connected to a rock star, Offspring frontman Dexter Holland.

Mohammed said Chronic Tacos will still continue these efforts, but now, with clear messaging guidelines for franchisees about what it means to live "the taco life."

"We didn't want franchisees going into new areas and then defining what the taco life means for themselves," he said. "We wanted to make sure that they understood this is where it came from, what it means to us."

A unified message is key, especially when fast casual restaurants have fallen on hard times. Industry consultant Pentallect reports that U.S. fast-casual sales growth will slow to between 6 and 7 percent from about 8 percent a year ago.

But, Mohammed said, it's also important to pay attention to the nuances of each market, like the fact that Chronic Taco's California surf vibe won't fly, in say, Utah. Instead, he said, "we're going to engage with mountain biking or other lifestyle elements."

"We want to be authentic," he continued. "That's such an important part of our brand, so we do watch that we aren't going to come off too corporate. Our messaging still has to be fun. It still has to be loose. It just needs to be consistent."

Leaventon agrees that it's a fine needle to thread as Chronic Tacos expands.

"At the end of the day, there are a lot of places where you can go get a taco," Leaventon said. "A key differentiator for them is they really are a lifestyle brand, so when you go to Chronic Tacos, you're not just going in to get Mexican food, you are going in to get a badass taco. And that's really what separates them and what they hang their hat on."

The first work, both digital and in-store, is slated for August.