Mexican fast-food chain Del Taco making a comeback in Columbus

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 6, 2014 

A new flavor of Mexican fast food is making its way back to the Columbus area after departing in the early 1990s, with plans for multiple outlets in Phenix City and the Auburn-Opelika area as well.

Columbus native Clay Gullatt said his Del Taco restaurant will open at midnight Aug. 6 at 4418 Hamilton Road, at the intersection of Manchester Expressway. It will be a 24-hour eatery, complete with a breakfast menu.

"When Del Taco came to the Columbus area and did the demographics for me, they really liked this spot because of the proximity to the hospitals and, of course, the hospitals operate 24 hours a day," he said of the schedule, which is optional for franchisees. "I am going to open it as a 24-hour store just to see how it does."

It also doesn't hurt that about 30,000 vehicles a day pass that location on Manchester Expressway, Gullatt said. The site also is roughly midway between downtown and the Columbus Park and Bradley Park shopping areas.

The franchise agreement gives the businessman territory rights to open Del Taco outlets in Muscogee County and the Alabama counties of Russell and Lee. He plans to open his second one in Auburn, Ala., in a year or so.

Gullatt's company is incorporated as "Blue Bonnet Taco." Costs for the Columbus restaurant included $500,000 for the property purchase last fall, according to city real-estate documents. A building permit from April 18 shows $904,965 is being spent on construction of the 2,418-square-foot building.

About 80 employees will be hired initially to get the eatery off the ground, with that number falling to between 42 and 55 as attrition kicks in and some individuals decide restaurant work isn't for them, Gullatt said.

The Del Taco menu will be somewhat different from its prime fast-food competitor, Taco Bell. There will be a variety of burritos, tacos and quesadillas, naturally. But hamburgers, fries and shakes will be offered as well, including a "bun taco."

Gullatt said what he likes best about the menu is the "freshness of the product" and the preparation that goes into the food each day.

"We cook the meat fresh in the store, even the chicken," he said. "We cook our own beans right in the store, don't use any lard, we cook them from scratch, grate our own cheese from a 40-pound block, and make our own pico de gallo right here in the store. So it's a lot fresher flavor for fast-food Mexican."

And this isn't Gullatt's first restaurant rodeo. He brought Little Caesars pizza back to the area starting in 2002, eventually opening six stores locally. He since has sold all but one in Valley, Ala.

He also has barbecue in his background, with his father, Mike Gullatt, who passed away in 2012, one of the founders of Phenix City-based Mike & Ed's BBQ. Clay Gullatt owned the Mike & Ed's on Veterans Parkway near downtown Columbus from 1997 to 2004, selling his interest before its closure a few years ago.

The younger Gullatt said as he was scouting Del Taco, his father accompanied him to grand openings of the chain's restaurants in the Atlanta area, then gave him the proverbial stamp of approval.

"He was all on board," Gullatt said of his dad. "So I have faith in him that he was leading me in the right direction."

This will be the first Del Taco eatery in the area since the early 1990s, when there was a location on U.S. Highway 280 bypass in Phenix City and another at Main Street Village in Columbus.

That was before the company hit the skids financially, with it eventually filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and downsizing. It regained stability entering the new century and starting to grow again.

Last month, Lake Forest, Calif.-based Del Taco began a celebration of its 50th anniversary, with 546 restaurants under its belt in 17 states, including five in Georgia. That compares to nearly 6,000 locations in the U.S. for Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, which was founded in 1962, a couple of years before Del Taco.

Gullatt said Del Taco co-founder Ed Hackbarth actually spoke to his franchisee training class in California before construction began on the Columbus store. Hackbarth, who worked for the late Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, stressed to the franchisees that no harsh words be spoken about the chain's fierce rival.

"He was very adamant that you show respect to Taco Bell, that company, because without Mr. Bell he would be nothing. He was given an opportunity by Mr. Bell. So it was a neat story to hear," Gullatt said.

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