IRVINE, Calif. -- El Torito Restaurants, based here, has kicked off a yearlong fiesta to celebrate 45 years of dishing out full-service, casual Mexican dining.
"We're improving our brand awareness by really involving our customers in the celebration," said Joe Herrera, senior vice president of marketing for El Torito. "There are special events and promotions, as well as new and improved menu items and to-go options."
In anticipation of the anniversary, the company revamped their to-go program last year, expanding their offerings and updating the packaging to help preserve the food's integrity. The new, microwavable takeout cartons are insulated to keep the meals hot and fresh, and customers have the option of ordering on site or calling ahead of time with their requests.
"The updating of the to-go program results from our recognizing the consumer's increasing need to take hot, fresh, prepared meals home with them," said Herrera. "Our customers can take home anything on the menu. It's a great business for us."
Described by the company as "a movable fiesta," the new to-go menu offers individual entrees -- packaged in divided containers to prevent the main dish and sides from running together -- as well as a variety of party platters.
A new addition, the platters require two hours notice and are custom packed and ready for presentation. Customers choose from Mexican favorites including taco, quesadilla or fajitas platters and can also order side dishes, portioned for 10 servings, such as beans, rice, or chips and guacamole with salsa.
The to-go program shares publicity space with the chain's regular promotions, which Herrera said are handled strictly through print advertising.
"The newspapers have so many options today which utilize color and really showcase our products," he said. "The visual aspect really helps to romance the food."
Advertising for El Torito occurs primarily in the western United States -- their key business market.
El Torito's menu features a variety of traditional dishes including guacamole, fajitas, enchiladas and burritos, and some contemporary choices like fresh grilled fish and El Torito's signature Mexican Caesar salad.
For the yearlong celebration, the chain is cooking up some new twists on old favorites, as well as a series of promotions and events, to keep the fiesta sizzling all year.
The centerpiece of the anniversary was created specifically for cinco de Mayo -- the world's largest margarita. On Monday, May 3, at El Torito's Northridge, Calif., location, Herrera and company mixed up a 1000-gallon margarita that remained on display at that unit through cinco de Mayo.
The chain also sold T-shirts designed for the Mexican victory celebration, reading "I survived the last cinco of the century."
"Cinco de Mayo is our No. 1 sales day of the year," said Herrera. "And this year's celebration was better than ever."
The giant beverage was not actually drinkable, due to sanitary precautions, but El Torito has petitioned the Guinness Book of World Records for an application.
New menu items have also been created, like the XXL Sizzling Enchi"WOW"da. A larger version of their typical enchilada, the enchi"WOW"da is filled with barbecued chicken, filet mignon or crab meat, and topped off with newly developed specialty sauces.
"Our plan is to create a new flair and pump some energy into our operation," said Herrera. "We're incorporating new dishes into our current menu, as well as introducing updated versions of the specialties that we have become famous for. Each quarter we're rolling out new twists."
In related news, plans are underway for El Torito to team up with Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corporation for a line of 18 different products which will replicate items used in the actual El Torito restaurants.
Chains such as Compton, Calif.-based Ralph's Food Stores and Vons, based in Pleasanton, Calif., have met with Herrera and representatives from Hormel to discuss carrying the new line of sauces, salad dressings and other specialty items.
The products are scheduled to hit supermarket shelves in June.
El Torito has also rolled out a sister chain focused on fast-casual, Southwestern cuisine, called El Torito Express. The quick-service venue utilizes a mesquite-burning grill -- La Parilla -- and an authentic comal -- used to prepare fresh tortillas.
The menu centers on a variety of freshly made salsas, beans, rice and other traditional dishes.
El Torito Restaurants is the second largest operator of Mexican full-service casual dining restaurants in the country. It is a subsidiary of Koo Koo Roo Enterprises, which operates over 300 full-service or fast-casual restaurants, including Chi-Chi's, Hamburger Hamlet and Casa Gallardo.