For more than two decades, Pancheros Mexican Grill has been part of the balanced diet of many University of Iowa students, who have made the company’s original downtown location a popular near-campus haunt.
Today, the rapidly growing fast-casual chain, headquartered in Coralville, has nearly 70 locations across the U.S., and the company expects to open dozens more restaurants in the coming years.
But even as Pancheros plants its signature tortilla presses in new corners of the U.S.and gains industry buzz — it topped a Huffington Post list titled "The Next Chipotle: 6 Chains Ready to Blow Up in 2015," for instance — the company remains rooted in the college town where it rolled its first burritos.
A collaboration this past year with UI's Tippie School of Business is the latest example of that queso-and-gown relationship, with an undergraduate class teaming up with the company to develop a marketing strategy aimed at introducing Pancheros to new cities.
"We don't take for granted our proximity to an institution like that, and we try to participate in as many things as we can — we're a part of the homecoming parade every year and the Dance Marathon,” said Reid Travis, Pancheros’ director of marketing and communication. “We're very fortunate we're in their backyard and these types of opportunities come to us."
Matt Butler, a senior marketing and journalism double major from the Quad Cities, discovered Pancheros when he first arrived at UI and has been a loyal patron since. Butler took part in the College of Business' advertising course this past spring that developed mock marketing campaigns, which students pitched to Pancheros at the end of the semester-long project.
“When I came to Iowa, everybody was raving that you had to go to Pancheros, you've got to get their burritos,” Butler said. “It’s just part of the culture. When you come to Iowa, it’s part of the daily life of students.”
Butler’s team created a concept highlighting the restaurant’s fresh-pressed tortillas — something he says sets Pancheros apart from the Chipotles of the world — and built upon the company's traditionally light-hearted advertising voice. The team drew up plans for radio, TV, print and social media advertisements, playing off the idea of press innovations throughout history: the printing press, the bench press, the French press, the full-court press and, finally, Pancheros’ fresh press.
"In marketing, make it easy to understand, and if it's in operations, make it easy to execute."
“It ultimately leads up to the fact that the fresh-pressed burritos are the greatest thing to come out of history,” joked Butler, who has parlayed the class project into an internship this fall in the company’s marketing department.
Butler and other students continued to work with Pancheros and its advertising firm over the summer to fine-tune the campaign, which the company plans to use in its real-world marketing and is rolling out via social media this fall.
Pancheros currently has 68 locations, and it opened its first restaurants in California and Florida this year. New restaurants also have either opened or are in the works in Illinois, Missouri, Connecticut and New Jersey.
As Pancheros introduces itself to new markets, many of which already have Chipotles, Travis said it’s key for his company to highlight the things that set it apart.
“We're breaking into new markets, and that's one of our issues — we need educate people on something like fresh-pressed tortillas, which differentiates us but some might not be aware of in places like California and New Jersey,” Travis said.
“The biggest thing that draws people to us is the simplicity. There's a mantra at Pancheros in everything we do, from marketing to operations to just the approach of the restaurant overall, is to keep everything simple. In marketing, make it easy to understand, and if it's in operations, make it easy to execute.”
Company founder Rodney Anderson, a Chicago native, opened his first Pancheros locations in Iowa City and East Lansing, Mich., in 1992, and expanded to several more college towns in the coming years. The company later branched out to a more suburban model, including local openings on Riverside Drive in Iowa City, near Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville and off Highway 965 in North Liberty.
Pancheros began franchising restaurants nationally in 2003, and today the company owns and operates 26 locations, while 42 others are franchised. Travis said the company does not make public its revenue figures, but Pancheros said in a 2014 news release that it saw its system-wide sales volume increase by 17.2 percent in 2013.
Although Pancheros' growth hasn't been as meteoric as "fresh-Mex" rival Chipotle, which now has 1,700 U.S. locations, Travis said his company’s philosophy on expansion is a measured one.
“We're methodical for a reason,” Travis said. “We're not just opening restaurants here and there, wherever people will take us. We like to pay close attention to the real estate, and make sure we're picking a restaurant location we really like and that there's potential in the market for us.
“Whereas others just blast restaurants all over, and some fail and some succeed, we're into opening restaurants with a slow and methodical approach.”
Ron Rouwenhorst, an adjunct assistant professor who taught the Iowa advertising class, said working with a local company such as Pancheros was a unique opportunity for the students to get real-world experience.
“It’s a brand all the students are familiar with and a brand with a unique and humorous voice that appeals to a demographic the students are most familiar with,” Rouwenhorst said. “It was a win-win all around.”
Butler’s internship this fall has involved managing social media accounts and engaging with customers online, many of whom may be in cities with new or soon-to-open restaurants.
“It really helps to work for a company that you really like," Butler said. "It’s like being a college player and getting drafted by your favorite NFL team."