Social Entrepreneur

Food with a Purpose. How Tijuana Flats is Serving More Than Just Tacos

At the heart of every Tijuana Flats restaurant is a hot sauce bar stocked with bold sauces that add an extra layer of flavor to the Orlando-based chain’s Tex-Mex fare. But if you go a little deeper, you’ll find at the heart of every Tijuana Flats is an unwavering commitment to giving back to the community.

Established in 1995 in Winter Park, Tijuana Flats has grown to 135 locations in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia and more than 2,800 employees and boasts a menu full of Tex-Mex classics from tacos, burritos and tostados to cookie dough flautas for dessert.

“Giving back is at the foundation of our culture,” said Brian Wright, CEO of Tijuana Flats. “It’s something we prioritize from day one — by celebrating new restaurant openings with a ‘Give Back Day,’ where proceeds from that day’s sales are donated to a local charity.”

With one-of-a-kind (literally) graffiti-like murals in each of its restaurants and a call-to-action for “death to tiny tacos,” Tijuana Flats’ dynamic brand is far from shy, and it doesn’t believe people should have to be when they need a little extra help. It was this line of thinking that inspired its aptly named nonprofit arm, the Just in Queso Foundation.

Founded in 2007, the Just in Queso Foundation has a mission of providing a helping hand to children, the military and the local communities that are home to the chain’s restaurants.

“We encourage managers and our franchise partners at individual stores to seek out locals and help them with anything they may need — medical bills, food or even staffing for fundraising events,” Wright said. “Truly serving and connecting with our guests goes beyond food, so you can often find us outside our restaurants partnering with local sports teams and attending hyper-local events.”

Heart and Hustle
The restaurant and food industry works to make our everyday lives easier — cooking our meals while handling the cleanup for us and even delivering groceries and curated recipes right to our door. But even with the speed and efficiency of on-demand meal delivery, today’s consumer wants more from food retailers and restaurants. In fact, according to a Clutch survey, 70% think social responsibility should be a central part of a brand’s purpose.
Finding that purpose has been easy for Tijuana Flats. From distributing free bags of ice to its customers prepping for a hurricane to paying off medical debt for residents in its community, lending a helping hand to its neighbors is all in a day’s work.

The Just in Queso Foundation works in tandem with its parent company to also support Tijuana Flats employees. Through its “Hot Scholar” program, the company provides college scholarships to 10 employees each year.

Funds from the Just in Queso Foundation are secured through campaigns, public donations and fundraising events, including annual events in two of its target markets — a casino night in Tampa and a gala with live entertainment and silent auction in Orlando. Additionally, Tijuana Flats employees may elect to donate directly to the foundation from their paychecks.

Bringing the Heat

“We’re passionate about a lot of things at Tijuana Flats,” Wright said. “Everyone knows things can get pretty heated with our hot sauces, but we also turn up the heat with our community efforts. We always embrace our neighbors and quickly lend our support in times of need.”

Hot sauce doesn’t just help kick things up a notch with the company’s tacos. Proceeds from sales of certain bottles of hot sauce boost community efforts as well, with 100% of the proceeds from bottles of one of the chain’s extensive hot sauce offerings, Jason’s Mom’s Sauce, donated to the Just in Queso Foundation to support a variety of efforts.

Despite its growing presence across the Southeast and beyond, Tijuana Flats hasn’t forgotten its roots. One of Wright’s favorite contributions has been adding a little Tijuana Flats flare to a local children’s hospital.

“Every year, Central Florida welcomes millions of visitors,” he said. “Many of them are families traveling to experience the area’s theme parks, but many are also families traveling to receive specialized health care from AdventHealth for Children hospital. We brought in a muralist to add superhero murals to the hospital’s walls to help make the trip to the hospital a little more fun and friendly.”

In addition to the murals, Tijuana Flats provided its biggest contribution of the year to AdventHealth for Children hospital: a $250,000 donation. The donation was partially funded from proceeds from the Just in Queso Foundation’s annual cancer research fundraiser, which takes place each fall at every Tijuana Flats restaurant.

Since its inception, the Just in Queso Foundation has distributed more than $4 million in support of various causes while Tijuana Flats employees have volunteered more than 17,000 hours with the foundation.

According to Wright, Tijuana Flats’ ultimate goal is to provide guests with over-the-top service both in and out of its locations. “You can’t find it on the menu,” he said, “but the impact we have through our community efforts is at the center of every one of our restaurants.”

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i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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