How a Smaller Franchise Partnered With a Billion-Dollar Brand on the Flamin' Hot Cheetos Burrito

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Fast-food mashups are everywhere: Doritos Locos tacos, Pop-Tart ice cream sandwiches, KFC's Chicken Corsages.

Still, when Taco John's announced the new Flamin' Hot Cheetos Burrito on Tuesday, the path to collaboration seemed like a mystery.

After all, the 400-unit taco chain is a small player compared to competitors like Taco Bell and Chipotle, which had 5,769 and 1,572 U.S. units at the end of 2013, respectively. How was it able to land a deal with the billion-dollar Cheetos brand?

The answer: Past history and a need for each company to mix things up.

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Taco John's quest for the perfect snack mashup sparked the collaboration that would yield the Flamin' Hot Cheetos Burrito.  

"Cheetos certainly connected with the millennial-type demographic," says Taco John's vice president for menu strategy and innovation Bob Karisny. The Flamin' Hot Cheetos in particular stood out as "Mexican-influenced," with spicier flavors that matched Taco John's style, when the chain approached Frito-Lay on collaborating.

For Frito-Lay -- a subsidiary of PepsiCo and the company behind Cheetos -- Taco John's seemed like a safe performance-boosting partner. Frito-Lay had experience with the franchise, with the previous limited-time-offering of the Fritos Burrito, and was an established mashup hit-maker through the success of Taco Bell's Doritos Locos. Plus, with Pepsi as Taco John's beverage provider and a general familiarity between the companies, the two brands seemed ready to meld.

With Flamin' Hot Cheetos as the central-product, Frito-Lay and Taco John's worked together to create a menu item based on the spicy snack food. Flamin' Hot Cheetos not only inspired the flavors – spicy chorizo sausage, nacho cheese, salsa and a spicy tortilla – but also dominated the ad campaign, which featured Chester the Cheetah and the left-behind cheese prints.  

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"We wanted to make sure both brands shine," says Karisny.

By centering a menu item around a big-name-brand, Taco John's hopes to grow their audience. Currently, the chain operates 400 restaurants in 25 states. However, the franchise is hoping to expand aggressively over the next five years. 

“I think the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Burrito will help us attract the attention of guests who currently aren’t familiar with Taco John’s," Taco John's CEO Jeff Linville said in a statement. "Raising awareness is very important for us as we work to grow the Taco John’s brand and add new restaurants across the country.”

So far, the response has been positive, according to Karisny, who says Twitter has been "blowing up." And, the duo isn't finished with development – the pair is in the process of a developing a product designed around the Jalapeno Cheetos, with the goal of releasing the product in 2015. While the details are still in the works, the result promises to be more focused on Cheetos' cheesiness and "something that's very portable."

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