Revised and updated December 30, 2020.
Mexican food is hugely popular, especially in the US, where it’s the second most highly rated international style, after Italian. It’s also the second most common menu type, after burgers, and represents 8% of the national restaurant industry, with 55,755 restaurants.
The US Mexican restaurant industry has therefore seen good growth over most of the past decade, reaching a market size of around $65 billion in 2019. It grew faster than the wider consumer goods and services sector. Franchises dominate in this market, with Taco Bell having two and a half times as many restaurants as its nearest non-franchised competitor in 2018, and Qdoba and Moe’s taking third and fourth place in the list of most extensive chains.
There’s good money in the Mexican business. More than half of Mexican restaurants have average annual sales of $500,000 to $1 million. Their place in the fast food industry means that this is often achieved through low margins and high sales.
Mexican food covers an increasingly wide range of restaurants, from traditional to fusion to New Mexican cuisine, from roadside taco stands to sit-in restaurants. Though most often combined with staples of the American south to form Tex-Mex, Mexican food is increasingly mingling with other cuisines to create bold new flavors, such as California-Mexican and Mexican-Korean.
This is a style of food that goes well with a franchisable dining model. Of the 58% of Mexican eateries that were full service restaurants in 2017, 97% were casual or family style restaurants. Of the 42% that offered limited service, 52% were part of a restaurant chain. This is a dining style that’s relaxed, accessible, and often associated with a familiar, widespread brand – perfect for a franchise.
Part of the appeal of Mexican food is the broad and varied menu. While some restaurants are known for a particular dish, such as burritos or tacos, most serve a variety of styles and fillings. It’s easy to provide a vegetarian option with a spicy vegetable filling instead of meat, and to make this vegan by leaving out the dairy. Salsas, sauces, and extra chilis spice dishes up and create a lot of choice with a range of flavors. It’s a dining experience that can fit all sorts of palates and dietary requirements, making it readily adaptable to the modern market.
The other key advantage of Mexican food is that it’s relatively inexpensive. This has helped to drive its popularity and provide repeat business. It also provides some protection against economically challenging times, when people seek inexpensive comfort food.
Like many eateries, Mexican restaurants suffered from the impact of COVID-19. The US market size fell by an estimated 12.3% in 2020, to $54.6 billion, its lowest point since 2015. This has led to significant losses for the industry in America and beyond, including the bankruptcy of the Rubio’s chain and the closure of one-third of the Wahaca stores in the UK. Because the separate elements are often assembled immediately before eating, Mexican food hasn’t traditionally been as oriented toward takeaway as competitors such as pizza, and this made it more vulnerable to the challenges of a lockdown world.
Fortunately, adjustments to the new situation have allowed restaurants to adapt. An increased focus on delivery and take away food has let restaurants stay in business while they couldn’t have sit-down customers, and provided those customers with a much-needed sense of normality. As vaccines are rolled out in 2021, business as usual should start to return, and while the economic impacts of the pandemic are likely to be felt for a long time, Mexican food’s relatively low price point should mean that these restaurants do better than many others during a recession.
The pattern of recovery in the restaurant sector shows particularly good news for franchises. Large chains seem to be recovering better than independent eateries. Whether it’s brand recognition, customer loyalty, or the support structures available, being part of a recognized brand is an advantage in weathering the COVID storm. As the economy recovers and people have the money to eat out more, franchises will also be in a good position to fill the gaps where other businesses have closed.
Longer term trends will also give fuel to Mexican restaurant franchises. Immigrant populations have played a large part in popularizing Mexican food and providing the industry with a solid customer base in the US. Despite recent anti-immigrant measures, the number of immigrants is expected to increase in 2020, creating opportunities for the industry. As the American population grows in size and diversity, so will the Mexican restaurant industry.
The Top Mexican Restaurant Franchises of 2021
1. Taco Bell
Taco Bell is the undisputed king of Mexican fast food in the US and has been growing rapidly in recent years, opening more than 200 new locations each year, and in 2019 doubled its spending on television ads to $64 million. Although most fast-food places have more or less given up on the dollar menu concept, Taco Bell has at least 20 different items that each cost exactly $1.
Founded by Glen Bell in San Bernardino, California in 1962 and franchising since 1964, the number of locations has continued growing steadily in recent years from 5,820 in 2008 to the current total of 7,400 (up from the previously reported total of 7,136), of which 473 are company-owned and 604 are located outside the US.
2. Qdoba Mexican Eats
Qdoba Mexican Eats is a fast-casual chain serving up Mexican-style cuisine that includes tacos, taco salads, burritos (San Francisco-style), quesadillas, chili con queso, Mexican gumbo, and other items. Steak, chicken, and vegetables are fire-grilled in front of customers, and pulled pork is roasted daily.
For 15 years, Qdoba was a subsidiary of Jack in the Box, but was purchased in 2018 by a consortium of funds led by Apollo Global Management. Founded by Anthony Miller and Robert Hauser in Denver, Colorado in 1995 and franchising since 1997, the number of locations rose steadily for more than decade but has declined slightly from 741 in 2018 to the current total of 736 (up from the previously reported total of 733), of which 346 are company-owned and 10 are located outside the US.
3. Moe’s Southwest Grill
Moe’s Southwest Grill presents a menu of Mexican fare, including burritos, quesadillas, nachos, tacos, salads, stacks, burrito bowls, and salsas along with more than 20 different ingredients customers can use to create their own customized meals. MOE is actually an acronym that stands for “Musicians, Outlaws and Entertainers,” and the restaurants have a hipster vibe as they play hand-selected music from all kinds of artists, and dream up crazy names for menu items with lots of pop culture references.
Founded in 2000 and franchising since 2001, the number of locations has risen steadily for more than a decade but just dipped from 721 in 2018 to the current total of 697 (down from the previously reported total of 718), of which three are company-owned and one is located outside the US.
4. Del Taco Fresh Mexican Grill
Del Taco Fresh Mexican Grill is a fusion concept bringing together Mexican and American burgers-and-fries cuisine. Del Taco recently replaced its traditional nacho cheese with Queso Blanco, an all-natural creamy white sauce with a jalapeño bite. It’s so popular that the chain has a whole Queso menu. The chain also recently launched a line of three Craveable Sweets and Scents essential oils (chocolate, churro, and vanilla) to go along with its new dessert menu item: Mini Churro Dipper Shakes.
Founded by Ed Hackbarth in Barstow, California in 1964 and franchising since 1967, the number of locations stands at 596 (up from the previous year’s total of 586), of which 300 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
5. Taco John’s
Taco John’s is a Mexican-inspired fast-food concept that the company calls “West-Mex.” In comparisons to Taco Bell, the chain does well, making it confident in its push to expand eastward. It has a unique signature menu item it calls Potato Olés, deep-fried seasoned potato nuggets that can be served with or without nacho cheese.
Founded by John Turner in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1968 and franchising since 1969, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 409 in 2010 to the current total of 387 (down from the previously reported total of 392), of which 11 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
TacoTime is inspired by the Mexican cuisine of Southern California. Its Crisp Burritos are hand-rolled and fried for a fan-favorite twist on the standard burrito. Another popular menu item is the chain’s Mexi-Fries, which are essentially seasoned tater tots that come plain or stuffed with creamy cheddar cheese and diced jalapeños. The rest of the menu is rounded out with tacos, quesadillas, nachos, salads, sides, and breakfast items.
Founded by Rod Fraedrick in Eugene, Oregon in 1958 and franchising since 1961, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 296 in 2010 to the current total of 237 (down from the previously reported total of 261), of which none are company-owned and 124 are located outside the US.
7. Taco Bueno
Taco Bueno serves up a basic Tex-Mex menu that includes breakfast items, two-entree combinations (tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos), platters featuring two entrees along with rice and refried beans, salads, sides, and sweets. The chain’s Muchacho Taco is gigantic and packs a Texas-sized 520 calories. Some locations in urban areas offer delivery through DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub, and other providers.
Founded by Bill J. Waugh in Abilene, Texas in 1967 but franchising only since 2004, the company’s franchising website references “more than 180 stores in 7 states.”
8. Mucho Burrito
Mucho Burrito is a Canadian chain of fast-casual Mexican restaurants offering three sizes of burritos, the largest of which (the Mucho) weighs more than 1.5 pounds! Mucho Burrito does not use preservatives or artificial flavors. Food is made by hand in front of customers, who get to select from a variety of meat options, including beef barbacoa, steak, chorizo, shrimp, chicken, and pork carnitas. Vegetarians can select a veggie crumble protein choice in place of meat.
Founded in 2006 and franchising since then, the number of locations has expanded from 62 in 2012 to the current total of 150, according to the company website, and while all are located outside the US (in Canada), the company website has the first US location marked as “coming soon” in Stratford, Connecticut.
8. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop
Fuzzy’s Taco Shop offers many taco and burrito varieties, seven types of nachos, nine salads, and lots of sides and breakfast items. Unlike most chains, franchisees are free to put some personal touches on their restaurants, such as music playlists (from approved providers) and décor elements that reflect their interests.
Founded by father-and-son duo Alan and Chuck Bush in Fort Worth, Texas in 2003 and franchising since 2009, the number of locations has grown rapidly to the current total of 140 (down from the previously reported total of 146), of which six are company-owned and all are located in the US.
10. Quesada Burritos & Tacos
Quesada Burritos & Tacos is another Canadian chain that presents a Tex-Mex menu that includes burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, quesadillas, tortilla salads, and sides. It added a Beyond Meat Burrito as a permanent menu item and will donate 1% of all the sales of that item to a non-profit group called 1% for the Planet, which distributes funds to non-profit partners working on environmental issues such as sustainable food systems and climate change.
Founded by Steve Gill in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) in 2003 and franchising since 2010, the number of locations now stands at 140 (up from the previously reported total of 124), of which three are company-owned and all are located outside the US (in Canada).
11. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is a fast-casual chain of Tex-Mex restaurants that is committed to using the freshest ingredients possible, as indicated by what the restaurants don’t have. There are no microwaves, no freezers, and no can openers. Everything is farm fresh and handmade daily. The menu features burritos, tacos, taquitos, Baja bowls, quesadillas, fajitas, nachos, salads, and sides.
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is now owned by Canadian MTY Food Group. Founded by Jim and Linda Magglos in Newbury Park, California in 1990 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations currently stands at 113 (down from the previously reported total of 137), of which seven are company-owned and five are located outside the US.
12. Costa Vida Fresh Mexian Grill
Costa Vida Fresh Mexian Grill has a high-end fast-food menu inspired by the cuisine and bold beach vibes of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. It specializes in made-to-order enchiladas, burritos, nachos, salads, tacos, quesadillas, and Baja Bowls (burrito ingredients without the tortilla).
Founded by J.D. and Sarah Gardner in Layton, Utah in 2003 and franchising since 2004, location data is hard to come by, but according to the company’s 2018 FDD, at the end of 2017 there were 94 locations, of which 23 were company-owned and a few were located in Alberta, Canada.
13. Taco Casa
Taco Casa got its start in the early 1970s with 16 menu items, and not much has changed since then, except there are now 17 items on the menu. It includes burritos, tacos, nachos, tostadas, frijoles, and its Chili Burger with a scoop of ground beef, red sauce, and shredded lettuce on a bun.
Founded by Shelda and Roy Upshaw in 1972 and franchising since then, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 58 in 2012 to the current total of 91 (up from the previously seen total of 89) as listed on the company website’s location page.
14. Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill
Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill is slightly more upscale than most quick-service Mexican restaurant brands, with a focus on creative combinations of fresh ingredients. One popular item is the Quesorito, a burrito smothered with Salsarita’s creamy queso. The chain recently added BOCA Veggie Ground Crumbles as a protein option for vegetarians and vegans.
Founded in 1999 and franchising since 2000, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 82 in 2011 to the current total of 72 (down from the previously reported total of 79), of which eight are company-owned and all are located in the US.
15. Pancheros Mexican Grill
Pancheros Mexican Grill is an Iowa-based fast-casual Tex-Mex chain featuring two distinctive pieces of equipment: a tortilla press to make fresh-pressed tortillas on the spot, and Bob the Tool, a special spatula with googly eyes used to mix burrito fillings. Customers can take the spatulas with them, who inevitably take creative photos of themselves with Bob and post them to various Pancheros social media pages.
The menu features burritos, burrito bowls, salads, tacos, quesadillas, and chips with three different dips: homemade guacamole, queso, and mild Ancho salsa. A vegan tofu protein option called Tofusada was added to the menu in 2016.
Founded by Rodney Anderson in Iowa City, Iowa in 1992 and franchising since 1995, the number of locations has been climbing in recent years from 47 in 2011 to the current total of 68 (down from the previously reported total of 71), of which 25 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
16. Chronic Tacos Mexican Grill
Chronic Tacos Mexican Grill is a Mexi-Cal fusion taco chain with a Day of the Dead vibe that serves up authentic third-generation Mexican recipes from the Bonilla family of Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico. The menu features tacos, burritos, bowls, quesadillas, salads, nachos, sides, and breakfast items. Something you won’t find at other chains is the authentic al pastor, a gyro-style dish developed in Central Mexico, inspired by Lebanese immigrants.
Founded by Randy Wyner and Dan Biello in San Clemente, California in 2001 and franchising since 2006, the number of locations has grown from 32 in 2010 to the current total of 50 (down from the previously reported total of 54), of which four are company-owned and eight are located outside the US (five in Canada, three in Japan).
17. California Tortilla
California Tortilla is a fast-casual chain that presents a menu of California-style Mexican food that includes burritos, chef’s bowls, street tacos, quesadillas, nachos, and fajitas. The loyalty program for the chain is called Burrito Elito. Customers accumulate points based on purchases that can be redeemed for Burrito Bucks.
Founded by Pam Felix, Alan Cohen, and Keith Goldman in Bethesda, Maryland in 1995 and franchising since 2003, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 50 in 2016 to the current total of 39 (down from the previously reported total of 41), of which five are company-owned and all are located in the US.
18. Bubbakoo’s Burritos
Bubbakoo’s Burritos has a menu featuring burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, taco salads, quesadillas, and nachos. Customers choose their entrée, then choose a protein (nine different meats, vegetarian beans and cheese, or a vegan boca patty), and finally dress it up with their choices from among 14 different toppings. The menu also allows for several different entrée add-ons, sides, and eight different sauces from mild to crazy-hot (Ghost Pepper).
Founded by Paul Altero and Bill Hart in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in 2008 and franchising since 2015, the number of locations has reached 36 (up from the previously reported total of 30), of which 11 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.