Hanging out with the partners who operate the Fuzzy’s Taco Shop franchise is like joining fraternity brothers on vacation in Mexico. “Eat me,” is one of their slogans. “Welcome to your new addiction” is another. “We’re working right now,” says CEO and president, Chuck Bush, 44, offering me a cold beer, at Fuzzy’s on State Highway 114 in Las Colinas.
“It is a fun atmosphere,” says Mel Knight, 56, executive vice president. “The fun part is very much a part of our culture.”
The Fort Worth-based chain’s main attraction is Baja-style fish tacos, loaded with grilled or tempura-battered fish, lettuce, tomato, cilantro, homemade garlic sauce, and three cheeses on a soft or crispy corn tortilla. Fish tacos were already the rage in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Southern California, when Bush discovered the original Fuzzy’s on Berry Street near Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He and his dad, Alan Bush (now retired), bought it from founder Paul Willis in 2003 and kept the name, logos, and recipes. Soon, he started getting calls from former TCU students who moved away: “Bring Fuzzy’s to Denver.” “How do I get a franchise in Florida?” Bush decided to duplicate it and teamed up with his friend, Knight, who once worked in Whataburger’s franchising department.
“The hardest part was going from one store to two,” says Bush. In the ensuing 12 years, Fuzzy’s has grown from one restaurant to 91 in 11 states. Net sales in 2014 totaled $100 million, nearly double the 2012 revenue. Another 120 stores are in development. Fuzzy’s expects to double its size over the next four years. Its growth and economics attracted the interest of Atlanta-based private equity fund NRD Capital Management, which purchased a 70 percent stake in the company in February. The partnership is expected to help the Texas boys continue to bring Baja tacos to areas across middle America.
“There was no recession for us,” says Bush. “People who were eating in high-end restaurants, and all of a sudden couldn’t go to those restaurants, guess where they came? They came to us.”
The partners initially targeted college towns (and still do). But now, some of their highest-producing stores are nowhere near a college. Reduced rates on commercial real estate helped create new venue opportunities.
Franchisees are often professionals changing careers who enjoy wearing shorts and a T-shirt to work. The franchise fee is $35,000 for the first unit. Real estate development costs between $400,000 and $1 million. Franchisees pay 3.5 percent of gross back to Fuzzy’s the first year and 5 percent after that. All restaurants serve the same food and feature the same logos and cold beer, but owners are encouraged to make their restaurants look and feel one-of-a-kind.
“If you want to put glass chandeliers in there, I don’t care,” says Chuck. “But why would you? We’re selling tacos.”