Episode 12: Finding Your Niche to Market Your Restaurant with Jeff McFadden of the Smoked Taco

Episode 12: Finding Your Niche to Market Your Restaurant with Jeff McFadden of the Smoked Taco

Jul 10, 2024


Jeff McFadden, founder of The Smoked Taco and Wallabies Smokehouse, shares his experiences in building successful restaurant brands. He emphasizes the importance of finding a unique niche and creating something that stands out from the competition. Jeff also discusses the challenges of scaling a business and the need to address operational issues as you grow. He highlights the value of having a strong team and empowering them to take ownership. Jeff encourages collaboration and learning from other restaurant owners in the industry.


  • Find a unique niche and create something that stands out from the competition.

  • Address operational issues and build a strong team before scaling.

  • Empower your team and give them opportunities to grow.

  • Collaborate and learn from other restaurant owners in the industry.


Shane Murphy (00:02.3)

Welcome back everyone. Today we're here with Jeff McFadden. He's the founder and operator of a couple of amazing brands, The Smoked Taco and Wallabies Smokehouse. And Jeff has run multiple multi -unit concepts for the last 18 years. And I've personally been able to witness him go through this process of building amazing brands in my local area.

So Jeff, we are super excited to have you on today. Thank you for joining us and being willing to share your experiences with everyone.

Jeff McFadden (00:33.389)

Yeah, absolutely. Appreciate you having me.

Shane Murphy (00:38.172)

You bet, and maybe before we just dive in, could you tell us a little bit more about your background and maybe even the origin stories of the two brands that you currently operate?

Jeff McFadden (00:51.631)

Yeah. So, restaurants have always been what I've done. even through high school and all that, I mean, that's just kind of been my world. wasn't necessarily what I initially thought, but you know, sometimes life has, plans for you and that's what you end up doing. So it, but it's been a lot of fun. So, origin story. So wallaby smokehouse isn't a concept that I started. It's a concept I actually took over after years of being involved. families involved with that one as well. and so that's been something for me that, I mean, I started working at wallabies in high school and, just, you know, I think that was kinda economic times were tough. And I kind of saw an opportunity to help turn the brand around. And from there, I helped grow it, bought it out, took it over. And then, yeah, built that to be several locations before 2020. Obviously 2020 kind of wallabies is a business that is built on large groups, parties. We do a lot of catering. So obviously COVID kind of hit, hit that restaurant or brand pretty tough. And that's kind of where we started building the concept of smoke taco. So that's kind of a quick and quick and dirty way to describe the progression through both brands. Always been interested in business, always been interested in marketing, always knew that that was what I was going to want to do. I wasn't even growing up. I knew, I mean, that was what I was drawn to in school. When I ended up getting more involved in Wallabies, I was going to school UVU for business management. So I always knew that that was what I was going to want to do.

Jeff McFadden (03:04.785)

and to me, business principles are what really, get me excited. And so, when opportunity comes, that's kind of what gets me, gets me going and gets me excited. So, I mean, yeah, that's kind of the, the little bit of backstory on me. you know, we, we find, we find it fun, dealing with kind of the uncertainty,

Like I said, 2020 was kind of a interesting time. I think it was for a lot of people in the industry. So it's kind of a fun story with, with smoke taco, how we got that going. We obviously were trying to figure out ways to get through some of the situations that were going on. You know, with wallabies, we were always a good portion of our business was offsite.

through catering where that became, not really doable anymore. I mean, I tell people I, I had, I mean, I was paying people for probably a week straight just to take cancellation calls for caterings that we had booked on the books for that year. just over and it was just the phone just kept ringing and it was all to just cancel. so after we kind of went through that, got a little more stabilized. we got in, in an interested in the idea of doing a food truck.

Jeff McFadden (04:46.938)

I don't know if there's a, I already got a call. So we actually bought the food truck initially with the idea of doing it for Wallabies. But as we were talking, smoked meat tacos was something we'd actually done on our own, just for fun. I mean, when you're in the restaurant industry, eating the same thing every day, you start getting creative with different ways to package your food, different ways to.

Shane Murphy (04:51.068)

It's good.

Jeff McFadden (05:15.962)

enjoy it and just be creative. So me and my, my partner, we just started messing around with different recipes just for ourselves over the years. And so we, we'd actually gotten pretty close to doing a similar concept a few years earlier, but once we bought the food truck, we,

Shane Murphy (05:17.66)

All right.

Jeff McFadden (05:39.387)

We really started brainstorming, right? Well, I mean, do we think people would be more likely to want to plate a barbecue out of a food truck or is this really our excuse to kind of really go in on this, new concept? And so we really decided that that was the direction we wanted to go. And over the next, four, six months or so, we really, got serious about, you know, turning that, idea that we've kind of always had. And.

just a fun little side thing we would do for ourselves into a legitimate concept, building the menu, building the names, building the brand. and then, I think it was March of 2021, we started serving out of the food truck and by August of that year, we had found our first brick and mortar spot. So, I mean, that's kind of the, origin of that and, and kind of a reflection of,

at least me personally, what I, what I enjoy doing in business, which is getting creative and thinking of different ways to approach problems and situations and, getting outside of just the day to day repetitiveness and, you know, finding solutions. So,

Shane Murphy (06:58.78)

Yeah, I think that's a fabulous story, especially like the constraints that came with COVID for our industry were so, so difficult, but you were able to turn that into an advantage of, hey, there's this new concept, let's move to a food truck, let's bring it to people. And, you know, really experimented and like, I've been to the Saratoga Springs location multiple times. That's where I live. And...

Jeff McFadden (07:22.94)

Mm -hmm.

Shane Murphy (07:27.388)

The Smoked Taco is a unique type of experience. It's not your average street taco place. It is a deluxe taco experience. You can fill up on a taco. And it's a wonderful brand that you've built. And that creativity that you're describing definitely comes out in the brand that you've built. I'm curious, as you...

Jeff McFadden (07:43.419)


Shane Murphy (07:56.796)

through the years have gone through business building and brand building, what are maybe one or two of the marketing strategies that have really proved successful for you as you've gone about building these stores and eventually adding more locations along the way?

Jeff McFadden (08:17.469)

Yeah, so I mean, initially, the thing that I always think of is you want to have something to tell people. And so I think a big thing for that is that.

I always look for is my thought is, is if I'm trying to do what big businesses already do, I'm, I'm already going to lose, right? Like they have bigger pockets than me. They have more marketing dollars. They have, they're going to be able to get the best locations. I mean, they have every advantage in the world, compared to a small restaurant or local operator.

And so for me, it's all about trying to find a uniqueness to what I'm doing, trying to find something that is gripping to people. because otherwise I'm trying to beat them at their own game instead of trying to do something unique and bring something creative to people. I saw, I mean, that's, that's really the initial thing that I would say for a concept in general is important is finding.

your niche finding, I mean, for smoke taco, for instance, if I would have just tried to do a hard shell beef taco with cheese and lettuce, it's like, I mean, I could, I could make a better one than Taco Bell or Adele taco or some of these other places. But at the end of the day, I mean, I'm, I'm trying to play their game, by their rules instead of saying, Hey, you know what? Like, let's do something that.

Maybe people have an experience before. Let's do something that maybe jumps off a social media page that gets people excited about the idea of wanting to spend their hard earned dollars with me instead of, you know, the national chain that they see 50 commercials for a week. And so there just has to be something there that really jumps at people.

Jeff McFadden (10:20.734)

Obviously that has its challenges. I would say for smoked tacos specifically, you know, we're not authentic Mexican tacos. Like that's not what we are. We try to be very upfront about that, even through our branding and through our ingredients and all those things. But, you know, there's a little bit of a learning curve that's tough for the general public where they say, Hey, this isn't, this isn't a taco or this is, this isn't what I'm used to.

And obviously some people are much more open to that than others. But what's fun is finding the people that are excited about what you're doing and seeing that grow is really fun. So.

Shane Murphy (11:04.444)

Yeah, and I love what you're describing because so often, you know, people think I have to play the game that the big brands do. And sometimes that's replicating the same types of food and trying to just do that locally. But even from just like a branding and a marketing experience, you described that really well, that the small businesses and the small restaurants will never be able to compete on the amount of like,

marketing dollars that they throw at something or getting the national brand attention and awareness. And so I love what you described about find your niche and lean into the differences and the places that you can win. Because when you have something that is unique or is different, your marketing dollars actually go farther than the big brand where you're trying to just peddle a generic thing.

And I think to hit on what you described, it's about finding the people that resonate with the uniqueness that you bring to the table. And then once you find that person, you can bring them back over and over and over again. And it's always cheaper to invest in that repeat customer and have them tell their friends than just go after new customer acquisition every single day.

So I love what you're describing there. You've gone through this experience a couple of times of expanding brands and expanding units. How do you know when you're ready for that second unit? With Smoked Taco, you went from the food truck to the brick and mortar, which is a natural progression. But how did you know it was ready for the second unit to be built in the brick and mortar?

Jeff McFadden (12:57.728)

so one thing I learned, and this was, with wallabies, was I probably expanded a little bit before wallabies was really ready. I wasn't as in tune with the demands of my personal time. and what it required of me and how much I needed to be the driving force.

and so I would say that's probably the biggest thing for me, is building something, you know, there's the marketing side of it and then there's the operational side of it. So operationally building something that, isn't dependent on me so that I can then go focus on growth. I think is a really important piece of the puzzle. I think some things I look for is.

you know, customer feedback and some of those things when I'm not in the building, I think sometimes that's something that, you know, operators get in trouble with. They say, Hey, this runs great with my eyes, right? When I'm in there, it looks great. It runs great. I get great feedback. But then the second I leave, it's like, Problems just start happening. I mean, that's kind of a good indication that me as an operator, I'm actually covering up operational problems because I'm really good at what I do.

And I know it needs to be done and it's all up here. but for me to know that something's ready to really expand is it runs well, whether I'm in the building or not, is, is a big thing. and whether I'm able to create something that is both, within a niche, but then also is duplicatable. So, I mean, that's kind of a big part in what we tried to build, especially the smoke taco.

in something that was potentially a franchisable or a scalable concept was can we create something unique? But then also can we create something that we can operationally execute and do well consistently? And so for me, that was kind of a big thing. I think we built something that was really great with our operations and what we were doing with SmokeTaco to the point where,

Jeff McFadden (15:22.018)

I mean, there's been a couple of times over the years where I would say, maybe the management within the building wasn't to the level I really wanted it to be, but the customer feedback, despite of that kept coming in good, high levels. And so to me, that seemed like operationally, we, we were ready to, expand and grow.

and that if we on top of that, find, you know, high quality managers, managers that want to grow with us, that are motivated, then that, that's something that we can do. but I think the important thing to focus on too is, as you scale and grow, it's not a finite thing. It's not like you just get to a certain point and you're just ready to, to explode and grow.

it is as you grow, you realize there's some cracks or some weaknesses in what you're doing. And there's still got to be this, commitment to filling those cracks, making sure that, operationally you're improving because there are problems that are easily covered up with one location or even two locations that become much more noticeable beyond that.

So that's kind of the big thing is it really starts amplifying your issues or your cracks and little things that weren't a big deal to you before. All of a sudden it's like, wow. Okay. that was only taken me, you know, two hours of time a week, but now that, I've got five, six of these things now that's, I mean, that's taken up, you know, half my work week, just on what seemed like just such a small thing. and so I think that that's kind of the thing is.

I think in business in general, this is probably one of the biggest things I see. And maybe this is, you know, it's kind of the exciting thing about business that people get excited about. But I also think that it's a little bit of a, misleading concept, which is I just build something and it just, it's just going to go, right. It's just gonna, it's just gonna print money or just do it. But it's like, you know, if, if it was that easy, like there'd be tons of people that would do it. And so I think,

Jeff McFadden (17:42.787)

The idea of constantly self reflecting, looking at what needs to be done better. just because something worked yesterday doesn't mean it's, what's going to serve you today and moving forward. whether that be marketing operations, brand in general menu. I mean, there's a ton of different stuff that I think constantly can,

be scrutinized and looked at to improve if scaling is what you are wanting to do. and, and I don't think that all restaurants are like have to be scaled either, you know, like I think that that's something else that it's like, I think some, sometimes you get enamored with the idea of more, more is better or more locations are better instead of saying, you know what, like,

this, this is a great concept that is a good local concept. There's tons of great local concepts that make people tons of money. And I think that that's probably the last piece that I would say is I think some people fool themselves into thinking that if I can just open more of these, I'm going to make more money when I think, opening more to make more, only works if you have a,

Shane Murphy (18:47.964)


Jeff McFadden (19:05.924)

a spot that's doing, doing well. because otherwise, I mean, if, if you're the one who's hiring, you're the one who's training and you're struggling to make it make money, the chances are that a less experienced manager, a less motivated person, I mean, they're probably not going to do it quite as well as you either. So like looking at those pieces of it, I think is important too. And don't fool yourself that saying, Hey, if I could just open more of these then.

I'm good instead saying, Hey, like, what can we do better within the current walls that we have to maximize and to make money and to market and provide a product that people can be excited about.

Shane Murphy (19:55.484)

I love that. And you obviously described in detail, like the operations and how the operations need to be in that duplicatable space. And that you're constantly solving the problems as it continues to scale. One thing that you had mentioned is the operations side really needs to be dialed in so that it frees you up to focus on growth.

What has that looked like for you as you've gone about focusing on growth and ensuring that the growth side of the equation is fueling all of the things that you've set up operationally?

Jeff McFadden (20:28.193)


Jeff McFadden (20:40.741)

Yeah. So, I mean, what's kind of been fun for me was, I mean, I, with the two concepts I've done one, I actually just took over. So there was just certain things that I, I mean, there was just kind of part of the identity of the brand that I couldn't really do away with just because for scalability sake, I mean, you just kind of take off your, you know, your loyal customers in a sense. So that was kind of always a,

choke point for me with wallabies was it was kind of like, well, this wasn't something I went to the drawing board and I built, it's just something that I more took over improved. and so I did have the benefit of with smoke taco being able to really feel like, okay, this is, it's kind of fun. This is going to the drawing board and saying, you know what, what are the choke points? What are the things that have been an issue for us operationally from a scaling standpoint? And how can we address those?

out the gate. so I did have that benefit and, you know, the, the foresight to know after, you know, being involved in a concept for 10 plus years, and just kind of running into those things and feeling like, man, I wish this or I wish that or, or even some of the stuff I did where I was like, man, that maybe looked better on paper than it would have, you know, then it, then it played in, in my operations.

And so I did have that benefit to say, you know, what, what, what do I want this to be? What are the choke points we've run into? so we can avoid those so we can build something that basically appeases both sides of the equation. And I think that's an important thing in the restaurant and just in business in general.

One of the things I love about it is it's the fact that you're taking two like conflicting concepts and you're really just kind of trying to find the sweet spot in the center. You know, for restaurants, it's how do I have good labor costs and provide a great experience? How do I have good food costs and to make sure that there's value there for people. And it's like, if I go too far on one side or the other, you know, customers aren't happy or I'm not making any money. And it's trying to find those sweet spots right down the center, to say,

Jeff McFadden (22:56.007)

How do I please, you know, both sides of the equation, and hit that sweet spot right down the center. So I think doing those things really enabled me out the gate to really focus on growth branding. you know, we, we have developed good relationships with, with some managers. so we were able to start with managers that had been with us for long periods of time.

so people's a big piece of it too, but I think that's the important thing is, getting as much out of your head and onto paper and into your training and into your expectations for people. I think it's really important because then that's what enables you to really focus on the growth and the marketing. and, and I realized not everybody, probably people listen to this podcast or interested in that.

but you know, not always is that what people's strengths are. So if that's not your strength, I think that's an important piece too, is finding those pieces that, compliment your, your weaknesses, right? Like there's people that are, you know, within my company, I don't get, defensive in saying there's, I want people that are better at operations than me. I want people that are better at communicating to me or that are.

I'm better at developing recipes than meat like that. That is, that's good. You know, that adds to the, to the pie to what we're doing. I, I think that, being naturally a competitive person, I think sometimes that, is a common trait of people within the business realm. I think sometimes you can get defensive and intimidated by the fact or the idea that other people can be better than you at something.

Shane Murphy (24:45.276)

Mm -hmm.

Jeff McFadden (24:51.592)

And, I think that that is something for me, as I've developed within business, I think it's been an important piece where it says, you know, I, I would love for people to be in the room that I have something to learn from. and that, you know, sometimes hard to come by. So when you find those people, you know, developing those people, giving people those chances to grow, I think is important.

The way I explain it to my managers a lot of times, cause they deal with this too, is not hoarding the opportunities for yourself, right? Like it's like, I think sometimes you, as somebody who is an owner, a manager, a developer of people, you think, Hey, I just want to make this easier for people. I just want to make this like something where, you know, they'll, they, they're just always happy or whatnot. But at the end of the day, when I think back to some of the times where I've been,

Shane Murphy (25:31.228)


Jeff McFadden (25:48.905)

the happiest or felt the most accomplished, within a restaurant is when it was busy and like, I looked out in my lobby and it's like that place is packed. I see happy customers. I see people that are like loving what they're doing. And I felt like, Hey, I did that. And I realized sometimes, I hoard that from other people and make them feel like that wasn't them. It was, they were just kind of helping me do that instead of saying, Hey,

How did you help do that? Or, you know, can, can, can you get to the point where you can be the lead or you can be the key person and you can experience that same thing because you can't really replace the, the excitement or the, how proud you feel in those situations. If you feel like it was too easy or you didn't have to work for it. And so I think that that's kind of a piece of advice too, or it's like, don't coddle your people.

give them clear expectations and, you know, give them, give them opportunities to grow. and the people that you want in your organization that do that, are the people that are excited about those opportunities. and those are the people that you want to keep around. So, I mean, that's kind of some of the pieces for me, the things that I focus on in order to free up maybe more time to focus on growing. So hopefully that kind of answers your initial question.

Shane Murphy (27:16.828)

Yeah, awesome. Jeff, this has been amazing. Thank you for sharing your story and how you've gone about developing your brands through the years. This is super valuable. And how can people learn more about the smoked taco and wallabies if they're wanting to follow those brands?

Jeff McFadden (27:37.738)

Yeah, I mean, social media is probably the best way, come in and visit us, try the food if you haven't been in. but yeah, I'd say just follow us on social media. we have good presence there. and, yeah, always reach out. we're, we're always happy to.

talk and, you know, answer questions. I think it's, it's fun. it's restaurants are a fun world. they have unique challenges. and so I think that, being involved with, with other concepts, fun. and you know, I think just don't be strangers. I think that that's kind of an important piece is, if it's not.

getting to know me or reaching out or whatever. It's like get to know your next door neighbor restaurant and those things. I think that don't be afraid to reach out to us on social media, but then also if not us, find somebody else too. I think it's a fun, it's a very transparent business. So, I mean, find us, find other ones, get to know people, find out what other people are doing. I think that's one of my favorite things. So,

If anybody wants to reach out to us, by all means reach out and I'd love to get to know some people.

Shane Murphy (29:03.58)

Awesome. Well, thanks again, Jeff, for coming and sharing your story and we really appreciate you. Thanks.

Jeff McFadden (29:09.13)

Yeah, absolutely.

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