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Fuzzy's is growing into a Big Fish among taco shops

Fuzzy's top five items

We've eaten at Fuzzy's so many times, we feel like we know everything about it. But turns out we don't. That's why we asked co-owner Chuck Bush what the five most popular menu items are:

1. Garlic shredded beef tacos

2. Tempura fish tacos

3. Grilled shrimp tacos

4. Chips & queso

5. Chicken tacos

(We could've sworn we'd eaten enough of the chorizo, potato, egg and cheese breakfast burritos to make this list. Go figure.)

What do you think about Fuzzy's expansion plans?
Posted 10:13am on Wednesday, Sep. 01, 2010

Mention Fuzzy's Taco Shop in a room full of Tarrant County suburbanites or TCU faithful and you'll get an almost orgasmic reaction: "Oooh, Fuzzzy's," they sing, drawing out the "z" with a purr. "The one in Arlington is our favorite.... The shrimp is amazing.... I've eaten there almost every week for five years now!"

Not bad for a little campus taco shop with a naughty name and "Eat Me" T-shirts.

It was all wink-wink good fun when chef/founder Paul Willis opened Fuzzy's in 2001 in the heart of the TCU campus and attracted late-night crowds by adding gourmet touches like feta cheese and garlic sauce to his perfect Baja tacos and divey atmosphere.

But a funny thing happened along the way: Fuzzy's became a local phenomenon and, just recently, a runaway franchise.

There are now 12 locations in North Texas alone, from Weatherford to Richardson, and 65 are slated to be opened in the next five years, as far north as Wisconsin.

Many of the franchises are strategically located near college campuses in places like Denton, College Station and Lubbock. New franchises are set to open in Norman, Okla., and Madison, Wis., just in time for football season. But it's not just the college crowd that loves Fuzzy's. Walk into the original West Berry Street location on any given Sunday and the post-church lunch rush will include families with strollers and professionals all waiting in line with flip-flopped students chasing away hangovers.

The restaurant's laid-back attitude, fresh and inexpensive food, and broad appeal have turned this guppy into a whale.

"It's almost created a cultlike following," said Fuzzy's President Chuck Bush, who, along with his dad, uncle and a family friend, bought the Fuzzy's concept in 2003 from Willis. "It's a place that everybody can go, relax and have fun."

Relax. Fun. Cheap. Taco. So far, that mentality has translated into each franchise, most of which have opened within the past two years. "I wear shorts and a Fuzzy's T-shirt every single day," said Bush, who likes to conduct business meetings on a porch with a bucket of beer.

But along with success and fast-paced expansion has come a bit of Fuzzy's backlash. Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner called the food an "alien race" of tacos "for people who don't like Mexican food." Ouch. Other foodies have scoffed at the thought of feta cheese anywhere near their taco or burrito.

But Fuzzy's fanatics will just point the haters to the sign on the front door: "Welcome to your new addiction."

Even Bush is amazed at the devotion of his customers, some of whom have gotten their own Fuzzy's Taco Shop tattoos. "I don't even have one of those."

But he's thinking of getting one -- maybe when Fuzzy's 100th franchise opens.

What the public wants

On one recent Friday afternoon, a line of customers stretches from the register halfway to the door. People waiting for their orders hover over tables as staff members quickly clear baskets of burrito remains and beer mugs. The smell of a hot grill hangs in the air as overhead fans whip around and a cook calls out an order: NUMBER 65!

The original Berry Street location, in all its no-frills splendor, remains a lunchtime staple for TCU students and also a loose prototype for the franchises that have followed. Each new store that has opened has its own eclectic mix of randomness -- ceramic fish in Dallas, jerseys pinned to the wall in Richardson, and bold basic colors: red, yellow, blue, teal. In two years, there will be 30 or more franchises across North Texas and adjoining states, Bush says, with 65 projected franchises in the next five years.

It's not cheap to get into the Fuzzy's business -- the initial investment is about $350,000, Bush says, which includes a $30,000 franchise fee, building improvements, beginning inventory, licensing, insurance and working capital. But money alone doesn't buy you a Fuzzy's franchise.

You have to get Fuzzy's. And the Bushes have to get you.

"It's a lot different compared to other companies," says Bush, who gets an average of six franchise inquiries a day. The first informal meeting with potential franchisees isn't a discussion about money but more of a blind date. Both partners have to be in like with each other to make it work.

Even with a growing number of franchises across North Texas, each store has kept a Fort Worth mentality -- family-friendly, community-centered, often supporting local community efforts and sports leagues and customizing stores to accommodate customer needs. In Richardson, every table has an electric plug so college students can log on to free Wi-Fi.

New franchise owner Ches Williams hopes east Dallas residents will embrace Fuzzy's in the same way that other communities, including Fort Worth and Denton, have. "I loved the food. I loved the concept," said Williams, a TCU alum and Dallas resident, who opened the first Fuzzy's Dallas in August. So far there has been a bit of a learning curve. The store was hit by thieves who took off with a short fryer, roasting pans and microwave shortly before opening, then a catering truck crashed. And then there was that slam in the DMN.

Dallas is a tough taco market, but "we're challenging the idea of a Tex-Mex taco," said Williams, who has plans for a second Dallas location. Big D is also home to taco joints like Torchy's Damn Good Tacos, Rusty Taco and the famous Fuel City tacos, and some fans of those just can't buy into the Baja-style taco.

"It's not really Mexican," says Rene Ramirez of Dallas, pointing to more Tex-Mex foods like chorizo and borracho beans on the menu. But as a poor college student, he says, cheap is "always good."

The Dallas store has reached out to customers with specials and a pet-friendly porch to help ease the East Trinity crowd into the new taco trend. Ben Hoffman and his wife, Beth Watson, have visited two days in a row -- pulled pork one night, breakfast tacos the next morning. "It's big, tasty and cheap," said Hoffman, over mouthfuls of tortilla. "What more do you want?"

Fit for franchising

Long before the Weatherford Fuzzy's opened this spring, Bush and his partner drove around the prospective store location studying people's eating habits, looking for an underserved taco market.

That's not going to be possible the more the Fuzzy's franchise grows, admits Bush, who is concerned about quality control. "I worry about that every day," he says. And yet, the Weatherford store -- which is not near a high-traffic college campus and doesn't appear to fit the Fuzzy's formula -- is one of the most successful.

The Bushes have been careful about who they let export their brand of Fort Worth cool, often choosing employees as closely as they choose franchisees. Those in the management circle are often friends or people the Bushes grew up with. Others come through word of mouth or personal recommendation. Résumés aren't necessary.

If they like you, you're in.

"Our goal is not to be the biggest, the baddest or to have a Fuzzy's on every corner," said Bush, who isn't ready to Taco Bell Fuzzy's anytime soon. Fuzzy's is, at its heart, a hangout. And though they are discussing a larger, much more aggressive expansion, possibly nationwide, the Bushes say they aren't committed to more growth than they can handle. "There's no organizational chart in our office," Bush said. "That's where everybody screws up."

But there is no mistaking the Fuzzy's frenzy going on at the moment. Every few months, another bright yellow sign with a red pepper goes up in North Texas, and another neighborhood discovers a new addiction.

Fuzzy's fanatic Meagan Reid can't wait for the new Burleson location to open. An incoming freshman at TCU, she says she has been coming to Fuzzy's every week for five years and regularly brings friends.

"I'm a superfan!" Reid jokes. "I should have stock in Fuzzy's."

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