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238 million Americans consumed Mexican food or its ingredients in 2020, when it was the third largest restaurant trend in the country. While more popular in some parts of the US than others, there’s barely a corner of the country where you can’t find some sort of Mexican food. And with Mexican restaurant businesses keen to make the most of this opportunity, many of them have turned into franchises.
The Appeal of a Mexican Menu
While Mexican restaurants initially arose to serve immigrants looking for a taste of home, they’ve evolved into something much more widespread, appealing to Americans of every age and demographic.
Part of the appeal of Mexican food is its strong and varied flavors. Diners looking for interesting options can often find something new in Mexican restaurants, especially with the increasing variety of fusion options, which combine Mexican with elements from American barbecue, Korean, or other cuisines.
Cost is also a factor. Mexican chefs have traditionally excelled at making tasty food from inexpensive ingredients. This can make Mexican food an affordable option for people who want to treat themselves but don’t have a lot of cash to spare, as well as a popular option during financial downturns. And because a lot of Mexican food is available as quick service takeout, it’s a good option for people eating on the go, trying to fit a hearty meal into a lunch break or find something low hassle for dinner. The format of the food, with messy ingredients wrapped up to be eaten by hand, makes it particularly suitable for a working lunch.
Getting Into Mexican
For restaurant owners, inexpensive ingredients help to keep costs down and increase the profitability of their restaurants. This is one reason why the Mexican industry is relatively easy to get started in as a franchise, as well as lower risk than some other restaurant options.
There are low barriers to entry in general where Mexican food is concerned. While a few chefs are working on Mexican fine dining, that’s not the focus of the industry. Casual dining makes up nearly half of business, with quick service and fast casual representing most of the rest, meaning that restaurants don’t need to be expensively decorated or fussily presented, and can even focus on takeout, depending on their market and location. This makes it an appealing option for new franchisees, but also increases competition. The same reasons you might want to get into Mexican make it appeal to other entrepreneurs as well.
The current popularity of Mexican food means that franchises are looking to expand, and that means that there are plenty of opportunities to sign up with an established brand that has the menu and strategy for growth. While more independents than chain restaurants were opening a few years ago, that’s the sot of trend that big brands see as an opportunity, not a problem. Some chains are adjusting their financial arrangements to allow for faster growth, as they fight each other for prime spots and the sort of cultural dominance that makes a household name brand.
The Financial State of the Mexican Food Industry
The Mexican restaurant industry is currently in the healthiest shape it’s ever been. There are over 47,000 Mexican restaurants, significantly more than five years ago, employing around a million staff. The sector generated over $88 billion in revenues in 2022 and is projected to reach just under $90 billion in 2023, with annual growth over the past five years averaging 4.7%. This average is particularly impressive given that it includes the loss of nearly $8 billion in revenues in 2020, a fall which the industry turned straight back into growth the next year. This is an industry that’s growing faster than average for the economy, expanding in the face of uncertain times.
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Mexican restaurants have shown capacity for growth in both good and bad times. When money is short, existing diners stick with it as an inexpensive option, while a growing economy brings in extra diners as people eat out more. Though the economy has been in an uncertain state over recent years, these restaurants have thrived, and that seems set to continue whether or not the economy improves through 2024. One forecast predicts that the industry will be worth $98.4 billion by 2028, and much of that growth will come from new restaurants.
Sooner or later, this growth has to level out, but there are no signs of that happening yet. While rising prices for ingredients, driven in part by the impact of a shifting environment on crops, will affect any franchise serving food, Mexican cuisine’s low cost point and adaptability have so far sheltered it from the worst of this.
Mexican food has secured itself a place in the heart of American culture, while keeping both costs and the hassles in setting up a restaurant low. And the number of existing restaurants means that it’s easier than ever to find staff with relevant experience. That makes this an ideal style for someone getting into franchising.
The Top Mexican Restaurant Franchises of 2024
1. Taco Bell
Taco Bell is the reigning champion of Mexican fast food in the US and has been growing rapidly in recent years, opening an average of more than 200 new locations each year during the past decade. While most fast-food places have more or less given up on the dollar menu concept, Taco Bell still has a few items that only cost $1, and several more that are priced at $2. The company has a strong media presence and has had many celebrities in its television commercials, the most recent featuring Pete Davidson.
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 5,980 in 2013 to the current total of 8,320 (up from the previously reported total of 7,900), of which 473 are company-owned, and 1,079 are located outside the US.
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2. Moe’s Southwest Grill
Moe’s Southwest Grill presents a menu of Mexican fare, including burritos, quesadillas, nachos, tacos, salads, stacks (quesadilla/taco combination, with the taco wrapped in a grilled tortilla), burrito bowls, and salsas, along with more than 20 different items customers can use to create their own customized meals (every order comes with free chips and salsa). 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 had been rising steadily to a peak of 721 in 2018 but has since declined to the current total of 621 (down from the previously reported total of 642), of which six are company-owned, and all are located in the US.
3. 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 many other items. Steak, chicken, and vegetables are fire-grilled in front of customers, pulled pork is roasted daily, and the guacamole is hand-crafted. Customers can top their entrées with guac and queso at no extra charge (first portion only; extra portions are subject to charge).
Founded by Anthony Miller and Robert Hauser in Denver, Colorado, in 1995 and franchising since 1997, the number of locations plateaued in recent years and now has declined to the current total of 615 (down from the previously reported total of 736), of which 196 are company-owned, and 13 are located outside the US.
4. Del Taco
Del Taco now has a tagline of “Better Mex.” It’s a fusion concept bringing together Mexican and American burgers-and-fries cuisine, though the primary emphasis is the Mex. The menu includes tacos, burritos, epic burritos, quesadillas, nachos, guacamole, crispy chicken, three signature burgers, crinkle cut fries, three kinds of loaded fries, salads, breakfast items, milkshakes, and several dessert options. It emphasizes its quality ingredients, including house-grated cheddar cheese, slow-cooked beans made from scratch, freshly grilled marinated carne asada, freshly grilled marinated chicken, and fresh house-made guacamole.
Founded by Ed Hackbarth in Barstow, California, in 1964 and franchising since 1967, the number of locations currently stands at 595 (down from the previously reported total of 600), of which 255 are company-owned, and all are located in the US.
5. Taco John’s
Taco John’s is a Mexican-inspired fast-food concept it calls “West-Mex.” The menu includes tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and its unique creation, Potato Olés, which are deep-fried seasoned potato nuggets that can be served with or without nacho cheese. Also on the menu are breakfast items, side salads, and several desserts. Taco John’s is the company that trademarked “Taco Tuesday” back in 1989 but recently grew tired of defending it when Taco Bell made the case it’s too common a phrase to be trademarked. Taco John’s relinquished its trademark in July 2023.
Founded by John Turner in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1968 and franchising since 1969, the number of locations has been declining in recent years from 402 in 2013 to the current total of 366 (down from the previously reported total of 369), of which seven are company-owned, and all are located in the US.
6. Quesada Burritos & Tacos
Quesada Burritos & Tacos is a Canadian chain presenting a Tex-Mex menu of burritos (white or whole wheat tortillas) in three sizes (regular, large, and big ass), burrito bowls, tacos, quesadillas, and a range of sides and add-ons. There are 15 toppings, three salsas, and five sauces. Among the protein toppings for vegetarians is a saucy chipotle tofu. Available meats on the toppings menu are pork al pastor, chile lime fish, flame-grilled chicken, spicy chicken, beef barbacoa, ground beef, and ghost pepper chicken mole.
Founded by Steve Gill in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) in 2003 and franchising since 2010, the number of locations has risen rapidly to the current total of 172 (up from the previously reported total of 153), of which two are company-owned, and all are located outside the US (in Canada).
7. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop
Fuzzy’s Taco Shop offers up a menu with a dozen different signature Baja Tacos, six different burritos, six burrito bowls, six types of nachos, six signature quesadillas, six different salads, and lots of sides and breakfast items. Franchisees can choose between the traditional standalone location or a smaller Fuzzy’s Taco Shop Taqueria with a smaller footprint, menu, and seating. Unlike most chains, franchisees are free to put some personal touches on their restaurants, within reason and the company’s guidelines.
Founded by father-and-son duo Alan and Chuck Bush in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2003 and franchising since 2009, the number of locations expanded rapidly to a high of 146 in 2019 but has since declined to the current total of 138 (up from the previously reported total of 137), of which one is company-owned, and all are located in the US.
8. On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina
On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina is a full-service restaurant chain with a large menu consisting of 18 different starters and salads, nine signature fajitas, seven different mesquite grill dishes (mostly quesadillas), 13 Tex-Mex Faves (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas), several desserts, a wide array of sides, and hand-crafted alcoholic drinks.
Founded by three friends in Dallas, Texas, in 1982 and franchising since 1996, the number of locations has fallen in recent years from 146 in 2019 to the current total of 134 (down from the previously reported total of 138), of which 109 are company-owned, and 16 are located outside the US.
9. Bubbakoo’s Burritos
Bubbakoo’s Burritos has a Mexican fusion menu featuring eight signature Killer Burritos or burrito bowls, tacos, a tostada salad, quesadillas, and nachos. These items can also be build-your-own custom ordered. Customers choose their entrée, then choose a protein (nine different meats, vegetarian beans and cheese, or a veggie 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 ten different flavor add-ins (sauces) from mild to crazy-hot (Ghost Pepper). Also on the menu are three Lifestyle Bowls (vegan, vegetarian, keto), chips and dip, hand-tossed wings, curly fries, and several desserts.
Founded by Paul and Bill in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, in 2008 and franchising since 2015, the number of locations has grown rapidly to the current total of 114 (up from the previously reported total of 86), of which 12 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.