Tempest in a Taco

Three look-alike restaurant chains slug it out to see who will be número uno in Mexican fast food.

You’re giving away the store!” yells Mike Stehling as he supervises my work assembling tacos at the double drive-through window at TaCasita #1 in San Antonio. “You’re putting too much cheese on those tacos.” Mike watches nervously as I get in the way of the four quick-fingered girls who process more than five hundred take-out orders a day in an average of ninety seconds an order. “You weren’t supposed to put guacamole on those chicken fajitas,” Mike says with a sigh. “Let’s go sit down before you drive away all of my customers.”

Mike had invited me to spend a few minutes bungling orders at his Mexican-food emporium to show me the ingredients that go into the success of patio dining. One of the hottest concepts in the $60-billion-a-year fast-food industry. The term “patio dining” may not be in your active vocabulary, but you have almost certainly eaten at or at least caught a glimpse of a patio restaurant. Their candy-pink or turquoise paint jobs glowing, these relentlessly cheery dining establishments stand out amid battalions of competitors. They have brought genuine Tex-Mex cooking to fast-food land, combining cafeteria convenience, margaritas, and a fantasy south-of-the-border atmosphere in a package that customers find irresistible.

If anyone should know about patio dining, it is Mike Stehling, because he and his brother Felix pioneered the idea. Their success, though, has been a mixed blessing. It has brought the Stehlings financial gain, but it has also attracted both the welcome and unwelcome attention of Texas’ savviest restaurateurs. In addition, it has generated two lawsuits having to do with copying and restraint of trade. Mike Stehling isn’t involved in the legal combat, but he does know how it all started.

Mike and Felix came

Tags: FOOD

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