Andrea Behrends

Throughout the pandemic, bartaco has done its best to find new revenue streams outside the four walls.

Bartaco Gets Back on Track by Providing a Pandemic Escape

The emerging restaurant chain has leveraged family packs, party kits, and secret offerings. 

Since being founded in 2010, bartaco has experienced quite the journey through the restaurant industry.

It began as the younger sister concept of Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant, under the parent Barteca Restaurant Group. In June 2018, Del Frisco’s purchased both brands for $325 million. A year later, private-equity firm L Catterton purchased Del Frisco’s in an all-cash transaction valued at $650 million. bartaco now has 20 locations across 12 states.

As evidenced by its lower-cased spelling, bartaco was created with a laid-back vibe, with inspiration coming from the cultures of Brazil, Uruguay, and Southern California, according to its website. The brand describes its menu as upscale street food, with a dining environment that features whitewashed woods, bar tops made from reclaimed wood, and chandeliers formed out of woven baskets.

Along with fellow experiential restaurants, the COVID-19 pandemic hit bartaco particularly hard, and the chain was forced to make its adjustments.

In regard to safety, the brand deploys a two-step process to ensure an employee is healthy and symptom-free before starting a shift. Workers are also required to wear masks and gloves, even where it’s not mandated, and to frequently wash their hands throughout the day. They are also receiving expanded emergency sick leave and pay.

In order to dine-in, customers must join a waitlist via the app or by calling the restaurant. The location then texts guests when their table is ready. Customers order the food and pay for it from their phone by scanning a QR code. The brand has also used floor markers to designate pathways and placed dividers between tables to ensure six feet of social distancing.

Throughout the pandemic, bartaco has done its best to find new revenue streams outside the four walls, including party kits and family packs. It’s also driven loyalty via its secret taco offerings, which involve an off-the-menu item that switches from time to time.

Scott Lawton, CEO and cofounder at bartaco, shared more details with FSR about how the brand is navigating the unprecedented pandemic.

Could you describe the current state of the company and what the outlook is for the rest of 2020? Describe the process of switching to off-premises early into the pandemic? What were the main challenges and what was done to increase efficiency?

Thankfully we are doing OK. Although we are down in sales a bit, we have increased our profitability through leveraging technology to create a more efficient labor model. The biggest challenge has been getting the right technology in place so that our guests can have a frictionless experience. We feel this model will carry us through the year.

As dine-in traffic returned, how much of the increased off-premises sales has bartaco retained? What off-premises level would you prefer to be at in a post-COVID world?

Almost a third of our business is still off-premise. We are learning to scale this part of the business and improve the way we serve our products to go. In regards to takeout, I don’t expect to ever go back to pre-COVID numbers.

How has the brand handled capacity restrictions in dining rooms, combined with social distance requirements? What's the key to maintaining the experiential atmosphere?

We have closed our bars until we feel they are truly safe to reopen, and are following capacity restrictions in every market. In some markets, like Florida, we are keeping higher standards than that of the state. We are doing our best to follow the science to ensure the safety of our guests and team.

How did COVID affect growth and development plans? How is the brand approaching future store designs, given the emphasis on off-premises?

It has definitely slowed us down a little, but we are excited to be getting back on track now. We have always loved patios and had takeout areas prior to COVID, and they will continue to be a big part of what we do.

More than six months into the pandemic, what are some of the biggest lessons you've learned, and in what ways have they strengthened the company moving forward?

We have learned a lot in the last six months. A big one is that hospitality is doing whatever it takes to make sure our guests and team feel safe. Another key learning is how much our team is capable of. By treating them fairly and being honest with them, we have seen them step up and perform in ways I could have never imagined. Lastly, I have learned how powerful our brand can be. We have provided a lot of joy and a true escape to our guests in a time when it is much needed. In a weird way, bartaco has provided an essential service to its guests.

How well is bartaco set up for a post-COVID world? Are they any specific goals you have for the brand?

We spend a lot of time working towards the new reality of the post pandemic world. I think as long as we stick to our core values of providing a true experience to our guests, we will be fine. We will maintain our focus on truly great food, genuine hospitality and a great vibe. Our goal is to stay humble, serve our communities and have some fun along the way.