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Mexican Fast-Food Chains Laud Battle Shaping Up

February 03, 1988|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

From Taco Bell to Taco Viva, the message Tuesday was that hotter competition in the Mexican-American fast-food business is fine if it helps sell more tacos, burritos and refried beans.

"I don't care about the competition--just as long as they advertise," said J. Brion Foulke III, chief executive of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Taco Viva, which has 60 restaurants in Florida.

As word spread Tuesday that Del Taco and Naugles--No. 2 and No. 3 in the business--are being combined by a new owner into a national chain, reaction in the Mexican fast-food industry was that every little bit of promotion helps--even if it's from a competitor.

"We think there's a big opportunity to make Mexican fast-food a more mainstream idea . . . by having someone help us expand the Mexican fast-food segment," said John Martin, president and chief executive of Taco Bell, the Irvine-based unit of Pepsico that leads the industry with 2,710 restaurants nationwide.

At the same time, industry experts note that the Mexican fast-food market, estimated at about $2.3 billion a year, has been growing. But market saturation has caused that growth to slow to about 2% nationwide during the past two years. "There are a lot of chains that all offer basically the same thing. It's just a question of regional favorites," said Lisa Bertagnoli, associate editor with Restaurants & Institutions, a Chicago-based trade publication.

Plans Major Merger

Which means, industry sources say, that to satisfy his big appetite for a national--and eventually international--fast-food chain, Anwar Soliman, the Newport Beach restaurateur who is buying Del Taco and Naugles, will have to dramatically increase advertising and promotional efforts.

Soliman is chairman and chief executive of American Restaurant Group, which operates or franchises 360 restaurants. On Monday, he rocked the fast-food industry by announcing that he is sole owner of an acquisition company that is paying between $100 million and $200 million for Del Taco and Naugles, two well-known Mexican fast-food companies in California.

The deal, which is set to close by late February, will bring Soliman a total of 373 restaurants, making his company, AWR II Acquisition Corp., the biggest Mexican fast-food chain in this state and the second-largest in volume in the United States.

The big advantage of the purchase is the sheer size of the combined operation, industry experts agreed Tuesday.

After all, one major factor in the success of Taco Bell has been its estimated $60-million advertising budget, sources said. By contrast, the combined promotional budgets for Naugles and Del Taco reportedly is less than 25% of Taco Bell's, industry experts say.

"Fast food is a marketing-driven business. It's also a business where you need a lot of places for people to shop your product," explained Leonard Pearlstein, chief executive of keye/donna/pearlstein, Del Taco's Los Angeles-based ad shop. "What counts is penetration, pervasiveness, omnipresence."

With that clout, the combination of Naugles and Del Taco will give Taco Bell its first direct competition.

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