For the past three decades, Consolidated Restaurant Operations (CRO) has worked to expand Cantina Laredo, its Texas-based, modern Mexican brand, across the world. CRO currently operates 39 of the upscale restaurants, but significant expansion plans for the brand lie on the horizon.

This year, Cantina Laredo leadership shifted its focus from company-owned stores to franchising, an opportunity CEO John Harkey says is compelling to restaurant owners and operators. “It’s an exciting time for the brand,” Harkey says. “We are pivoting into franchising and believe there are opportunities in the U.S. and all across the world.”

There are currently 38 total locations globally. Twenty-six are company-operated and 12 franchised, Harkey reports.

Most recently, the brand signed agreements to open three locations in Qatar’s capital city of Doha. The group Al Amthal Hospitality, an affiliate of Real Estate Services Group that specializes in hospitality development across Qatar, is Cantina Laredo’s newest franchisee. Plans exist for three Cantina Laredos in Doha, with the first location scheduled to open later this year. Al Amthal Hospitality will open this unit in a multi-use urban environment where there will be restaurants, office spaces, and residential units.

The genesis of Cantina Laredo in Qatar follows other successful Middle Eastern locations in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. There are still active units in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh, and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

“The contemporary flavors of Mexico for which Cantina Laredo is known will be a welcomed addition to the restaurant environment in Qatar,” Al Amthal Hospitality CEO Ali Taimour says.

Harkey agrees with Taimour’s assessment. “Mexican food resonates very well with the Middle Eastern diners,” he notes. The restaurant’s fare includes proteins and wraps that parallel traditional Middle Eastern dining palates. The transition to the region felt natural and logical.

“We’re very active in the region,” Harkey says. “The brand has been accepted very well.” Evidence supports his observation: Just before the Qatar locations were announced, CRO signed for 10 new locations in Istanbul, Turkey. Construction for a new restaurant is also underway in Cairo, Egypt.

Cantina Laredo leadership has plans to add more franchisees in the future. Harkey says ideal candidates would already have significant restaurant expertise.

“We’re really making a concerted effort to push franchising,” Harkey says. The company recently hired a full-time director of franchising and signed seven new franchised locations just in the past few months.

Cantina Laredo leadership is currently engaged in conversations in Asia, India, China, Korea, and Taiwan. Harkey intends to open 200 new Cantina Laredo locations within the next five years.

CRO attributes the brand’s success to open-mindedness. When asked how he finds leads for new restaurant locations, Harkey says the answer is much simpler than one might think. “Well, we answer our telephone when the telephone rings.”

The Qatar partnership evolved out of one such phone call. Taimour’s Al Amthal Hospitality impressed Harkey and his team with its professionalism, existing resources, and well-established hospitality and restaurant industry expertise.

CRO hopes Al Amthal Hospitality will experience success with its Cantina Laredo ventures and will feel encouraged to build even more locations in the region beyond the initial three restaurants in Doha.

Founded in 1984 in Addison, Texas, Cantina Laredo provides guests with an upscale-dining atmosphere to experience a blend of authentic and modern Mexican cuisines. In addition to Cantina Laredo, CRO restaurant brands include Black Oak Grill, Cool River Café, El Chico, Silver Fox, Good Eats, Lucky’s, and III Forks.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual