Back in August, we reported on the anticipated opening of a new taco joint in Houston called Texas Taco Co. The Friendswood location was the third store set to open in Texas -- the other two are in Baytown and Magnolia -- and though it sounded like a delicious addition to the Houston-area restaurant scene, we and Eater noticed a striking similarity between the menu at Texas Taco Co. and the menu of another much-lauded Texas taco spot: Torchy's Tacos.
Apparently we weren't the only ones.
As soon as the first Texas Taco Co. opened, in Baytown, diners started sending messages to Torchy's asking, essentially, what's up with your new restaurant? People assumed, because of similarities between the two menus, that Texas Taco Co. was somehow affiliated with Torchy's.
For example, the Torchy's menu offers a breakfast taco called the "Monk Special," which is described as "'Hold the potatoes.' Eggs, bacon, green chilies & cheese. Served on your choice of tortilla."
Texas Taco Co. offers an "Alamo Special," described as "'Hold the potatoes.' Eggs, bacon, green chilies & cheese. Served on your choice of tortilla."
You see the issue?
Torchy's saw an issue, too, especially when people there remembered that back in March a former employee, Mario DeJesus, had allegedly stolen the Taco Bible, "a proprietary start-to-finish recipe and food process guide for all Torchy's food products." As a condition of employment with Torchy's, workers must sign papers agreeing not to disclose the confidential inner workings of Torchy's Tacos, including recipes.
DeJesus initially denied he had stolen the Taco Bible, but according to his testimony, Forrest Harrell, an employee at Torchy's, convinced DeJesus to admit he had taken the document and to return it. DeJesus told Harrell he would leave the book on top of a car in the parking lot of an Exxon station just south of the restaurant. Harrell was able to regain possession of the book, and DeJesus was fired.
Lawyers for the plaintiff discovered that shortly after he left Torchy's, DeJesus began working for Texas Taco Co., driving 40 miles from his home every day to do so. Lawyers for Torchy's argue that DeJesus wouldn't be making an 80-mile round-trip drive for work every day for his $10-an-hour paycheck. They believe he was employed by Texas Taco Co. prior to being fired and that he received a substantial amount of money from the owners of Texas Taco Co., ARK Dudes, in exchange for the proprietary information contained in the Taco Bible.
On June 7, 2013, Success Foods Management Group, the owners of Torchy's Tacos, filed a temporary restraining order against DeJesus. The court decided that "there is a substantial likelihood that Defendant Mario DeJesus has engaged in wrongful conduct, including misappropriation of trade secrets and breaches of duties owed to Torchy's, related to competitive activities and Torchy's confidential information that DeJesus is in a position to use on behalf of a competing business." The court went on to note that DeJesus's continuing actions could cause "immediate and irreparable injury" to Torchy's business.
DeJesus claims that he had not been in contact with Texas Taco Co. prior to being fired from Torchy's. He says that he saw the Texas Taco Co. restaurant in Baytown and decided to apply for a job there. Based on his testimony, he does not seem to think there's anything suspicious about driving 40 miles to get to a job that pays $10 an hour and isn't always a full-time position.
Brittany Platt, marketing director for Torchy's Tacos, says Texas Taco is in the wrong.
"Honestly, we'd like for them to stop," Platt said when asked what the company hoped to achieve with the lawsuit. "I think we agree it's a pretty poor business practice, and we're trying to rally the troops and clear the air. People think that we're affiliated, and we're not."
We were also able to get in touch with the lawyer for Texas Taco Co., Matthew Hoeg, who said that the claims being made by Torchy's are false.
"There's this allegation that there's a videotape of my client supposedly stealing the Taco Bible, but there's no such tape, because it didn't happen," Hoeg says. "Their story is that they misplaced or lost it." Hoeg also says Torchy's claims someone at the company lost the confidentiality agreement that his client supposedly signed.
As for the menu overlaps?
"Did my guys like the notion of what they do?" Hoeg asks. "Sure. Were they trying to imitate the things that succeed there? Sure. The menu isn't secret. They don't own that concept."
Hoeg is vehement that his clients, DeJesus and ARK Dudes, have done nothing wrong and that Torchy's has been very reluctant to hand over incriminating information, including the surveillance tape and the confidentiality agreement.
"We don't have and have never had their stupid Taco Bible," Hoeg says. "Nor do we want it."
The new Texas Taco Co. that was supposed to open in Friendswood appears to still be closed, and the phone number listed for that location is not working.
Here is a comparison of some items on the menus at Torchy's and Texas Taco:
Torchy's "Mr. Orange" - Blackened salmon topped with a grilled corn and black bean relish, queso fresco and cilantro. Drizzled with AVOCADO SAUCE then served with a wedge of lime on a corn tortilla.
Texas Taco Co.'s "Poncho Lefty" - Blackened salmon topped with a roasted corn & black bean salsa, queso fresco and cilantro, drizzled with AVOCADO SAUCE, served with a wedge of lime on a corn tortilla.
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Torchy's "The Independent" - Hand-battered and fried portobello mushroom strips with refried black beans, roasted corn, escabeche carrots, queso fresco, cilantro and avocado. Drizzled with ancho aioli on a flour tortilla.
Texas Taco Co.'s "William Travis" - Hand-battered and fried Portobello mushroom strips with refried black beans, roasted corn, escabeche carrots, queso fresco, cilantro & avocado. Drizzled with ancho aioli on a flour tortilla.
And lest you think it's tacos only...
Torchy's "Grande Burrito" - Your choice of beef, chicken, pork or veggies served with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole. Wrapped in a 12" flour tortilla.
Texas Taco Co.'s "Big Bad Bandito Burrito" - Your choice of beef, chicken, pork or veggies served with rice, beans, shredded cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream & guacamole. Choice of sauce and wrapped in a 12" flour tortilla.
Torchy's "Green Chile Queso & Chips" - Torchy's homemade chips with delicious green chile queso topped off with guacamole, queso fresco, cilantro & diablo sauce.
Texas Taco Co.'s "Green Chile Queso & Chips" - Homemade chips with delicious green chile queso topped off with guacamole, queso fresco, cilantro & DIABLO sauce.