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What do In-N-Out Burger, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Dave’s Hot Chicken, and Roll-Em-Up Taquitos have in common? Sam Fonseca.

The operations executive talks with NRN about his past, future, and his latest endeavor.

In-N-Out Burger, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, and Dave’s Hot Chicken are all wildly successful restaurant brands. They focus on simple food with incredible execution. They all have massive consumer sentiment, with In-N-Out cruising to first place in our annual Consumer Picks survey on customer loyalty. But they all also have another thing in common: Sam Fonseca.

Fonseca spent 14 years of his career at In-N-Out before moving to Raising Cane’s and eventually ending up at Dave’s Hot Chicken. Now, he’s at Roll-Em-Up Taquitos, where this restaurant executive thinks the next big thing is about to hit.

With a history of picking brands that are about to take off, Fonseca’s instincts about Roll-Em-Up Taquitos may be right.

The brand brought him on as chief operating officer last year and he’s slowed down growth, instead focusing on the brand experience and growing smart. Operational excellence is key to growth, according to him, and that’s what he’s brought to Roll-Em-Up Taquitos.

Started by Ryan Usrey, his wife Tiff, and his dad Ron, Roll-Em-Up Taquitos was founded in part due to Usrey’s relationship with his mother.  She passed away, and when Usrey was trying to think of the best way to honor her, he remembered her taquitos best. Thus, Roll-Em-Up Taquitos was born.

Fonseca found out about the brand through a customer complaint while he was at Raising Cane’s. When Fonseca went into the store to recook the customer’s order, they told him about a new restaurant he should check out: Roll-Em-Up Taquitos.

He went to the store and was instantly blown away. From the reggae music (which was implemented after a particularly busy day to calm annoyed customers) to the food, Fonseca was impressed. So impressed he left his card with the team and asked the owner to contact him.

Fonseca told Usrey, “you hit on something, and it’s gonna go big.”

Their friendship over the next few years would eventually lead to Fonseca becoming the chief operating officer of Roll-Em-Up Taquitos.

“The beauty of turning a complaint into a win-win,” Fonseca told Nation’s Restaurant News. “It’s a great example of listening to the customer; they might find your career for the rest of your life or a great partnership.”

One of the reasons Fonseca found Roll-Em-Up Taquitos interesting — and why he took the job — was because they do one thing very well. The menu is just taquitos and, as Fonseca compared them to In-N-Out, he said that’s one of the secrets to success.

When focusing on one thing, you open yourself up to thinking about other things like strategic growth picking the right franchise partners, and caring for people, according to Fonseca.

“We’re going to be extremely selective, extremely picky with whom we choose to be partners in the business,” he said. “We’re looking for those great individuals who have grown up in the restaurant industry and love the restaurant industry, who love what the restaurant industry can do for young people.”

Fonseca himself got started in the restaurant industry as a 17-year-old at In-N-Out and just wants to have his franchisees impart the same wisdom to their young employees that he received.

“I saw what great leaders can do for young people because a lot of people did that for me as I was coming up,” he said. “So, we’re looking for the same type of individuals who love the restaurant industry.”

He has a plan for growth, no matter how slow it may be compared to Dave’s Hot Chicken, for example.

“It would be a shame if I didn’t have a very good plan,” he said. “Working with those great bands would actually be a disservice to those great leaders at In-N-Out and Raising Canes and Dave’s Hot Chicken if I didn’t come up with a plan, because they did a great job in helping me with my growth.”

The eighth unit is the company’s first Nevada location, and for the California-based brand, that was exciting. There are almost 50 units in the pipeline for Roll-Em-Up Taquitos throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and California. Arizona and Oklahoma will be new markets for the brand as well.

They are looking for more franchisees, but expect most of their units to be company-owned as they grow.

“Our goal is to make sure that we focus on every single opening to have a great opening to have great franchise partners to grow great corporate restaurants,” he said. “And our focus is not to be the fastest growing chain. It’s to make sure that we grow smart, that our franchisees are successful, and that ultimately the customer wins.”

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