The best Mexican restaurant franchises are not created alike. From authentic Mexican recipes to Tex-Mex to Mexican-inspired to fusion with American food, these diverse 15 fast-food brands should be on your list if you’re considering becoming a restaurant franchisee. You can join a chain on this list for a relatively small investment of $208,000-$287,500 at Quesada Burritos & Tacos, or you can go as high as $2 million-plus at Taco Bell, Del Taco, or Qdoba Mexican Eats.
A $38 billion industry, the Mexican restaurant segment continues to grow. An April 2017 report from CHD Expert showed nearly 60,000 Mexican restaurants operating in the United States, second only to burger restaurants. Americans ate more than 4.5 billion tacos in 2016, according to the National Taco Day website, and that’s not counting burritos, enchiladas, and the rest.
Fans of Mexican food aren’t going anywhere. It’s affordable, it’s quick, and, most importantly, people like the taste and variety. We at Franchise Chatter based this list of the top Mexican restaurant franchises on variety, innovation, performance, and popularity among diners, and we appreciate the diversity. From Taco Tuesday at Taco John’s to the Fajita Burrito Bowls at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, diners are making a steady diet of Mexican food.
1. Taco Bell
With a huge menu, plenty of low-cost choices, and 6,686 locations, Taco Bell is the market leader of Mexican fast food in the U.S. The chain is poised for growth, anticipating 8,000 locations by 2023. At No. 12 on the 2017 Franchise 500 list, the top-ranked Mexican restaurant on Entrepreneur’s list is the one to beat. While fast-food chains move to value menus with variable prices, Taco Bell still has its dollar menu. After McDonald’s announced in December that it would return to a dollar menu with its new $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu, Taco Bell reminded the public that its dollar menu has more than 20 items and said it plans to add another 20 through 2018, all for “actually $1.”
2. Qdoba Mexican Eats
Qdoba Mexican Eats, with 729 locations in the U.S., Canada, and the District of Columbia, has only 10 percent of the locations that Taco Bell has, but Qdoba is very spread out, covering 47 U.S. states, so it has plenty of room to grow. The chain, which is a subsidiary of Jack in the Box*, started out by bringing San Francisco-style burritos to Denver in 1995 as Zuma Fresh Mexican Grill. Qdoba offers chef-inspired creations like the Drunken Yardbird Taco, featuring tequila lime chicken topped with fresh Cotija cheese. Steak, chicken, and vegetables are fire-grilled in front of customers, and pulled pork is roasted daily.
*Jack in the Box recently announced that it will sell Qdoba to private equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC for $305 million. The deal is expected to close by April 2018.
3. Moe’s Southwest Grill
Taco Bell may be king of the market, followed by Qdoba Mexican Eats, but Moe’s Southwest Grill is no slouch. Moe’s, which has 682 locations, was Fast Casual Restaurant Brand of the Year in the Harris Poll Equitrend Rankings for the second straight year in 2017 after unseating Chipotle in 2016 (Taco Bell was No. 3). The chain, whose Mexican fare comes from the U.S. Southwest, is attracting millennials with its fresh menu items, music, and engaging atmosphere. Moe’s stands for “Musicians Outlaws and Entertainers,” and the restaurants play hand-selected music from legendary artists. The casual atmosphere is embodied in the greeting customers get when they arrive: “Welcome to Moe’s!” Many menu names come from pop culture, like the First Rule of Chicken Club quesadilla.
4. Del Taco
Del Taco‘s fusion between Mexican and American burgers-and-fries cuisine means that customers can get fries with Mexican food. Sometimes the two are paired, such as in the new Queso Chicken Burrito, which has crinkle-cut fries tucked inside. But what’s really turning heads is Del Taco’s new Queso Blanco, which recently replaced the chain’s nacho cheese sauce. The all-natural creamy white sauce gets its bite from jalapenos and is the highlight of so many items that Del Taco now has a Queso Menu. Taco Bell does not serve queso, so this could boost Del Taco. The California-based chain has 555 locations in 15 states and has exclusive territories for development across the country.
5. Taco John’s
Taco John’s, whose 401 restaurants are primarily in the Central and North Central United States, aims to become the fastest-growing Mexican quick-service restaurant franchise brand in the U.S. Its footprint is increasing, with particular emphasis eastward, where the brand has not made inroads and competition is lower. Fifty new franchise commitments in 2016 set a company record, and 2017 has continued that growth. Taco John’s isn’t afraid to face off against Taco Bell, as it has been extremely competitive in head-to-head competition. The chain has long been known for its crunchy Potato Oles (with or without nacho cheese sauce) and Taco Bravo, and for coining the phrase “Taco Tuesday.”
TacoTime’s long history dates back to 1960 when the first restaurant opened in Eugene, Oregon, inspired by Mexican cuisine in Southern California. The chain, which started franchising in 1962, has grown to 274 locations and plans to continue national expansion. One of the notable menu items at TacoTime, the Mexi-Fries are basically seasoned tater tots, available plain or stuffed with creamy cheddar and diced jalapenos. The chain’s famed Crisp Burritos are hand-rolled and then fried for a different take on the standard burrito.
7. Taco Bueno
Texas-based Taco Bueno serves basic Tex-Mex dishes, including breakfast items, with a number of two-entree combinations and platters. The chain offers seven different fajita platters, for example. It’s said that everything is bigger in Texas, so perhaps the Muchacho Taco shouldn’t be an eyebrow-raiser, even though the taco is so big that its 520 calories is more than twice the 200 calories of a regular taco. Dallas Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton in June 2017 partnered with Taco Bueno in what seems like a natural fit. Some locations in larger cities have signed up with DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub, and other fast-food delivery service providers, which could mean increased demand by hungry homebodies. The chain has 182 units.
8. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop
Fuzzy’s Taco Shop got its start in Fort Worth, and the overwhelming majority of its 124 locations are in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. Only a few are west of Oklahoma: nine in Colorado and one each in Nevada and Arizona. The chain attracted attention in June 2017 for its Jalapeno Bottle Caps (sliced, battered, and fried jalapenos) and Jalapeno Cilantro Queso, as well as the announcement that Burrito Bowls were back on the menu for good. Fuzzy’s has many taco and burrito varieties, seven types of nachos, nine salads, and lots of sides and breakfast items.
9. Mucho Burrito Fresh Mexican Grill
Canada’s largest premium fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain, Mucho Burrito Fresh Mexican Grill deserves its name. The chain, which has more than 100 restaurants, offers three sizes of burritos, and the largest, the Mucho, is heavier than 1.5 pounds. Mucho Burrito does not use preservatives or artificial flavors. Food is made by hand in front of customers, who have quite a few meat options, including barbacoa, carne asada, chipotle shrimp, chorizo, pollo chicken, and carnitas. Vegetarians and veggie-loving omnivores are not forgotten; The Premium Veggie Mix is atypical and intriguing: butternut squash, sweet potato, edamame, corn, portabella mushrooms, ancho chiles, and agave marinade.
10. Quesada Burritos & Tacos
Quesada Burritos & Tacos, which opened in Toronto, Ontario, in 2004, is the fastest-growing Mexican franchise in Canada with 88 restaurants in seven provinces. The flavors are complex, created by trying new taste combinations in test kitchens. Quesada’s tagline is “The 100% Canadian Mexican Burrito.” Start-up costs are fairly low, ranging from $208,000 to $287,500 (CAD). The chain says it keeps costs down by providing supplies at cost and allowing franchisees to choose contractors for construction. Quesada was named Franchisee’s Choice by the Canadian Franchise Association in 2016 and 2017, based on surveys of franchisees.
11. Costa Vida
Costa Vida was started by J.D. and Sarah Gardner, who were inspired on a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to bring the cuisine and bold vibe back home to Layton, Utah. The chain’s specialties are enchiladas and nachos, Mango Chicken Salad, Sweet Shrimp Salad, Sweet Shrimp Tacos, and Mahi Mahi Tacos. Costa Vida has 86 restaurants in 14 states and the Canadian province of Alberta. Most locations are in the West, with a few in states farther east. A 10.8 percent increase in average unit volume in 2016 marks the third straight year of growth in average sales.
12. Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill
Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill is a little more upscale than some of the other quick-service Mexican brands, with creative combinations that use premium fresh ingredients. One of the biggest menu items is the Quesorito, a burrito smothered with Salsarita’s creamy queso. Salsarita’s 80-plus locations are mostly in the U.S. Southeast. The restaurants have a clean, simple look with bright colors and bold design elements. Many are in shopping centers and on college campuses, and a few are even located within private businesses.
13. Taco Casa
Shelda and Roy Upshaw used their experiences as Taco Bell franchisees to start their own business in 1972. Taco Casa opened with a simple vision and 16 menu items, and not much has changed in the past 45 years. Taco Casa has 77 units, most in Texas and a few in Oklahoma. The chain plans to keep expansion to those two states and will continue to use local vendors. The menu is basic Tex-Mex, with some simple tweaks like the Chili Burger, with a scoop of ground beef, red sauce, and shredded lettuce on a bun.
14. Pancheros Mexican Grill
Iowa-based Pancheros Mexican Grill has two distinctive pieces of equipment: its tortilla press used to make fresh-pressed tortillas on the spot, and Bob the Tool, a plastic spatula with googly eyes used to mix burritos so all ingredients are in every bite. The spatulas can be kept by customers, who upload photos of Bob in their own elements. The Tex-Mex chain has a different take on chips and sauce, serving blue corn chips with three sauce choices: queso, mild ancho salsa, and fresh-made guacamole. In the fall of 2016, the chain introduced a unique vegan dish: Tofusada, spicy tofu marinated in a Southwest-inspired sauce and sautéed until crispy and glazed. Pancheros has more than 65 restaurants.
15. Chronic Tacos
The big selling point for Chronic Tacos is its authentic Mexican recipes. Founder and President Randy Wyner grew up with Jason Bonilla, who supplied recipes passed down from his great-grandmother in Mexico. Chronic Tacos, which has 47 locations, has inserted a bit of Southern California influence into some of the recipes, but the core ingredients and flavors have remained the same. The SoCal influence is also seen in the restaurant design and the laid-back atmosphere. The restaurants serve many Mexican dishes familiar to Americans, but customers will also find authentic al pastor, a taco- or gyro-style dish developed in Central Mexico, inspired by Lebanese immigrants.