Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

How a Rebrand Helped Spice Up This Cal-Mex Chain

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The following is the 16th in the series "Live Your Brand" in which branding expert Melanie Spring takes us along on her three-week road trip across the country to meet innovative entrepreneurs whose experiences offer lessons learned to businesses big and small.

Every business thinks about rebranding somewhere along the way. Some end up doing it in the early stages when they figure out their goals. Others find their industry changing around them and adapt with a rebrand. California Tortilla rebranded after asking the question: “Should we still play 80’s music in our stores?”

California Tortilla, also known as CalTort, is an award-winning Cal-Mex restaurant known for fresh, made-to-order burritos, quesadillas, salads and tacos. In 2003, the two-unit Maryland fast-casual restaurant concept, was purchased after eight years of successful growth under a local co-ownership. Since the purchase, CalTort has built and franchised to over 37 locations in the mid-Atlantic region.

When they first started in 1995, their quirky, spunky atmosphere won over Bethesda, Md. With '80s music, wacky promotions and fresh, quality food, CalTort stood out among the rest and even won best burrito over Chipotle and Moe’s in the DC area. The original branding stayed with the build-out of new stores and continued their success. Then that fateful music question was asked and a two-year brand update project began.

Here’s what you can learn from their successful rebrand.

Related: Becoming the 'Benchmark' Brand Everyone Covets

1. Ask yourself the hard questions. While heading through rebranding, they asked themselves all sorts of hard questions. “Do people identify with a fun place where the food is secondary to the messaging?” “People like the vibe, but why don't they remember the food?” “Usually people think of quality food before they think of atmosphere, so why come to CalTort?”

Because people were remembering the atmosphere more than the food, they knew they had to change their message. CalTort only uses the very best, high-quality ingredients in their recipes -- from the fresh whole white meat chicken breast to their dark green lettuce and made-to-order tortilla chips -- and wanted their customers to understand the quality they received. Half of the team voted to get rid of the "fun" vibe, but they realized they had to focus on what they did best. It came down to three things: ingredients, recipes and fun. It was finally decided the rebranding should be around the messaging of "best food with a fun vibe." (Ironically, the original question was never answered. All the stores still play '80s music.) 

2. Keep what brings your customers back. In the very beginning, the original co-owners put out an ad for cashiers and heard crickets. They changed the ad to include the word "spunky" and got a ton of response. During the rebrand, CalTort researched the intangible feeling you get when you interact with a great cashier, so they could continue to hire for it.

Related: CVS' Lesson: Let Your Brand Be Your Guide

They looked at the research of Francis Frei, a Harvard professor who had studied Commerce Bank, a bank that chose to compete on opening hours and customer service instead of product offerings. Commerce Bank chose to compete by being open nights and weekends and to employ the friendliest staff in town. They accomplished the latter by hiring tellers who “smile in a resting state.” The thinking was that customers tend to have a better experience with people who naturally appear friendly. CalTort is known for having some of the happiest, spunkiest cashiers, and they’ve created a branded process for finding them and keeping them.

3. Hold onto your authenticity. With the voice being the same since the very beginning, CalTort knew they needed to have it continue to come from one mouth. The newsletter, Taco Talk, has been going out since the beginning and one of the original co-owners still writes it. It's conversational, real, and you can identify with it. With 175,000 subscribers, they're big on building loyalty and always send out something worth reading.

Stacey Kane, VP of marketing, has an eye on CalTort’s marketing at all times. Managing their Twitter and Facebook accounts, along with responding to everyone who mentions them, Kane has made sure everything stays branded.

"Social media has to be authentic. I have typos in my posts sometimes, but I'm real. There's never marketing speak,” says Kane. She suggests using interns for marketing help but warns against interns working on social media.

Related: Why Happy Employees Are Your Key to Successful Branding

4. Think of every little detail. Although their fonts have changed over the years, CalTort’s rebranding campaign wasn't just an update of the logo font, but the entire aesthetic of their brand.

Along with new lettering for the name, the logo was updated to include an open avocado to show how fresh their food was. A new color scheme of fresh green included the original branding of bright colors in the interior patterns. Their menu board system included five or six panels so the menus were cost-effective to change out as items changed.

The team also chose to make the kitchen an open concept, so customers could actually see their food being prepared. In fact, their whole space was more open, cozy and welcoming. 

Starting with the two busiest corporate-owned stores, CalTort wanted to get the new build-outs finished with solid metrics to show the franchisees how it would boost business. "Even with corporate being cost-conscious of the buy-in for the branding update, the franchisees were so excited about the rebrand that they were chomping at the bit to get measurements and estimates for their own build-out,” explains Kane.

Related: How This Company Is Looking to Rebrand a Whole City


Melanie Spring

Written By

As the Chief Inspiration Officer of Sisarina, a D.C.-based branding firm, Spring built her business with a strong content marketing strategy. With an innate sense for social media, connecting with her customers, and building a culture around her brand, she teaches businesses and non-profits how to rock their brand. She also recently toured the U.S. on the Live Your Brand Tour collecting stories from businesses living their brand.