• Kim Lewis Designs employed a walnut-stained cedar to create a unique ceiling trellis for the Highlands Ranch, Colorado, location. - photo by From the Hip Photo

In 2006, a taco trailer in a dusty South Austin parking lot opened for business, establishing one of the most iconic venues of the food trailer movement: Torchy’s Tacos. The restaurant has since expanded its elevated taco experience and grand empire of Austin cool outside Texas borders into Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and beyond. Much of Torchy’s brand identity is rooted in the quirky culture of Austin — in its early days, Torchy’s founder Mike Rypka would ride through the city on his red Vespa dressed as a devil wearing an adult diaper to deliver chips and salsa to the hungry masses. Shortly after, Farrell Kubena, an entrepreneur from West Texas who also owned a modern home building business, joined as a partner to help expand the company and, in the process, established the eye for design that has become synonymous with the brand. 

“Early on, the mandate was to do things right, but make a statement with the building design, and do something different every time,” says Jeremy Smith, Torchy’s vice president of design, construction, and facilities. “At the end of the day, we wanted to create a really good experience with our facilities that complemented the food. My number one job was to cultivate a team of really talented people of outside firms to help us design these restaurants — firms that got us, that understood the concept. We are an Austin brand. We are funky. We are hip. We are edgy.” 

As a result, Torchy’s began the search for designers who got their vibe and whose values and interests aligned with their own. “You’ve got to look at it kind of like a relationship,” Smith says. “If our values and interests are not aligned, then it’s probably not going to work. We tried to get really good at developing those relationships with designers. I think we’ve done a good job. If you look at our portfolio, we’ve done some pretty cool stuff. Of course, I’m hugely biased, but it’s a lot different than a lot of other restaurant concepts.”

Torchy’s opened its first brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2008 on the corner of South First and El Paso streets in Austin. Today, there are 67 Torchy’s restaurants in operation, and eight more under construction, with plans to establish an additional 100 stores over the next five years. A combination of in-house and outsourced design support allows Torchy’s to clip along at a hasty pace, leveraging the fresh perspectives of external designers and architects during concept design to ensure that each store is unique, while in-house designers develop construction documents and oversee construction administration to keep the process nimble. This allows the company to maintain tight control on MEP while quickly making changes in the field during construction. 

Never comfortable with the status quo, Torchy’s has tested the boundaries of its own brand identity again and again over the last decade. Early on, their aesthetic revolved around a standard material palette of highway road reflectors, Douglas fir plywood, polished concrete floors, reclaimed wood, and powder-coated steel details. But as Torchy’s expanded into the Colorado market, they discovered another restaurant concept had co-opted much of their visual identity. It was at this point they decided to change things up. The Torchy’s team toured Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Chicago to do reconnaissance on cutting-edge trends in restaurant design and subsequently let their designers loose to experiment with new trends while staying true to Torchy’s essence. Their Tulsa location, for example, is a more sophisticated take on the brand, featuring crystal chandeliers, dark wood, and brass.

“‘Experimented’ is a good word,” laughs Kim Lewis, owner of Kim Lewis Designs and former lead designer for ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” who designed Torchy’s Tulsa location, among others. “They’re not afraid to make a statement with their spaces, which I appreciate. Highlands Ranch [Colorado] is probably the one that I’m most proud of. We really wanted a more refined feeling, a little more elevated, but still classy, quirky, and cool.” Notable features include an artfully executed cedar ceiling trellis, black and white tiles in the queue line, and an oval-shaped communal bar with brass fixtures. “Normally we might use something like a plywood, a maple, a birch, something a little more casual and outdoorsy, for an Austin Torchy’s,” Lewis says. “But for Highlands Ranch, we went with a deeper walnut-stained cedar for the ceiling trellis because we wanted to embrace a little more of Colorado.”

MF Architecture recently completed a new Colorado outpost in Boulder. Founder and principal Matt Fajkus, AIA, says: “One thing that’s interesting about Torchy’s in general is that they’re expanding so rapidly that there’s a certain bit of spontaneity to the way they have to operate. There isn’t the sort of corporate model that you might expect for a very large chain. We found, for all the locations, regardless of the city or state, they want to maintain some of that character, but then they also want to dial it to fit a little bit of that local context as well. In the case of the location in Boulder, it made sense to do something that wasn’t too sleek or high-end, but not exactly rustic — a cozier scheme.” 

Much of MF Architecture’s proposal for retrofitting the existing shell involved visually opening the space by peeling back the dropped ceiling to reveal the raw structure beneath. Exposed steel trusses and warm wood finishes lend a refined but outdoorsy atmosphere to the restaurant. “It’s been a great project and client for us,” says principal Sarah Johnson, AIA. “It provides us an opportunity that a lot of other projects don’t. Of course, as an architect, when you’re not in the construction drawing and construction administration phase, you lose some control over details and some of the specifics. But it’s a great way to think on a larger scale and make big design moves, and have those tested quickly over and over again.”

After completing several projects outside of Texas, Torchy’s saw a need to step back and reassess which of the new branding elements they wanted to keep and which would be left behind. “We did seven or eight projects that were just way out there,” Smith says. “We thought, ‘Let’s take a deep breath and look at what we really love out of those. Let’s use that and then bring some more of the traditional back in.’ That’s where we’re at today.” 

“One of the elements that Torchy’s was interested in building on was Vespa culture, since their original store had delivered tacos on a scooter,” says Chris McCray, whose firm McCray and Co. has completed seven of Torchy’s recent locations. “It was fun for us to put our own lens to the space. From there, we started developing and designing wallpaper and came up with the idea of using old motorcycle helmets as focal points within the space.”

“The Austin design aesthetic is something Liz Lambert, in her hotels, has helped to define, Torchy’s has helped to define, P. Terry’s has helped to define — there are so many great local brands here,” McCray says. “It’s the idea of sharing that vibe with smaller, potentially underserved markets like Abilene, Lubbock, Corpus Christi. We get to layer up a little Austin cool with a new taco joint in town.” Principal Grace Hall says: “I think it’s interesting because when you get to store number 68 with a lot of similar concepts, each store is more or less being stamped out. That’s not what Torchy’s is doing. They really want each to be unique and different and compelling in its own way.”

While most of the restaurants are interior finish-outs, a handful are ground-up construction, including Chioco Design’s iconic South Congress location in Austin, its new restaurant in Odessa, and two flagship locations in Arkansas designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (MHOA). MHOA worked with Torchy’s to expand into the Fayetteville, Arkansas, market, designing a new building that would establish a significant architectural presence in the region and set the tone for subsequent smaller projects. 

Wanting to maintain the playful aspects of the Torchy’s brand while remaining reverent to the community and region, MHOA first undertook an analysis of historical Fayetteville architecture and the character of the Ozarks. “There is a wonderful landscape in Arkansas that’s full of large, jagged rocks along rolling, spiking hills,” says MHOA’s partner in charge, Micah Land. “These natural forms intrigued us. If you look at architecture in Arkansas, you’ll find amazing wood-framed buildings, like those by Fay Jones. We were inspired by that dynamic, modern architecture that is also very natural. The soul of the project was building on an exposed wood structure and creating a warm, friendly restaurant interior — something that is comfortable and very organic.”

When considering the Fayetteville project, Smith makes it clear that responding to the context of far-flung locations is not all that’s on the menu. “We wanted to make a nod to the local architectural community, but then again, we’re an Austin brand. We feel like that’s integral to the presence and experience that we bring to any community, so that’s kind of what’s driving it,” he says. “One thing that the ownership group has allowed us to do in the design department is to really take risks with the design. We’re OK trying things and trying to make a statement. And so, it’s a little bold. And it’s tenacious. And that is in line with Austin. You know, it’s OK to take a risk and be yourself and really show your personality. Through design, we really try to do that.” 

Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, works for Overland Partners in San Antonio. 

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