The Dirty Sanchez. Mr. Pink. The Democrat. The Republican. Fans of Austin-based Torchy's Tacos will immediately recognize these as some of the creative names the company has developed for its signature dishes. Now, a lawsuit alleges that a competitor has stolen the company's secrets and opened a new restaurant that mimics Torchy's distinctive items.
The alleged culprit? Texas Taco Company, a three-outlet chain that started in Baytown and has locations in Friendswood and Magnolia.
Chefs can't trademark recipes, but do style and presentation make a recipe so unique that it's a trade secret? That's one of the issues at the heart of the lawsuit.
Torchy's marketing director Brittany Platt says that the company became aware of Texas Taco Company when Torchy's customers started tagging images from Texas Taco on Instagram. "There's clear consumer confusion" about the relationship between Torchy's and Texas Taco, Platt tells CultureMap. She says the suit's purpose is to clarify that the two aren't connected.
In a pleading filed in Harris County, Torchy's alleges that Texas Taco uses recipes, menu designs and presentation styles that are "a blatant Torchy's rip-off."
In a pleading filed in Harris County, Torchy's alleges that Texas Taco uses recipes, menu designs and presentation styles that are "a blatant Torchy's rip-off." Furthermore, the suit claims that former Torchy's cook Mario DeJesus stole the Torchy's "Taco Bible" that contains all its recipes and supplied it to Texas Taco. The suit seeks both to stop Texas Taco Company from using Torchy's recipes and, of course, for monetary damages for using them in the first place.
According to Torchy's, DeJesus signed a non-disclosure agreement when he worked there that prohibits him from revealing any of the company's recipes to competitors. Furthermore, Torchy's uses a variety of tactics, including video surveillance, to prevent employees from ever removing the Taco Bible. When a manager saw that DeJesus had done so, the company fired him immediately after he returned it.
When a Torchy's manager visited a Texas Taco location and inquired as to whether Texas Taco was using Torchy's recipes, the pleading states that an employee told him, "McDonald's had also been copied and it was 'just business.' "
While it will be up for a jury to determine whether Texas Taco owes Torchy's money, the appearance and descriptions of both companies' tacos appear similar. For example, both the Torchy's and Texas Taco menus describe the avocado they use as "hand-battered," and the Torchy's fried avocado and Texas Taco Willie have identical-sounding toppings. The same is true for the blackened salmon taco that's known as Mr. Orange at Torchy's and Bill Pickett at Texas Taco.
Texas Taco did not immediately respond to CultureMap's request for comment on the lawsuit, and its answer to Torchy's pleading denies all of the allegations. Among the documents Texas Taco officials produced in the filing are DeJesus's employment application and some highly entertaining emails from Torchy's employees that include comments like "I hope you go down in flames" and "THANK YOU SO MUCH for ripping off something that we have all worked so hard to build."
Torchy's makes a number of claims in its pleading, but Hembree says the Austin-based company can't prove them. "If there's evidence, tell them to show it."
UPDATE: Texas Taco president and secretary Adrian Hembree contacted CultureMap with his side of the story. Asked about whether he or anyone connected to Texas Taco stole the Torchy's Taco Bible, he responds definitely. "Absolutely not. There's no way in hell."
Torchy's makes a number of claims in its pleading, but Hembree says the Austin-based company can't prove them. "If there's evidence, tell them to show it . . . They claim Mario DeJesus stole the Taco Bible. Ask them to give you the video." Hembree says they asked Torchy's to produce the video as part of the case's discovery, but Torchy's hasn't. Similarly, when Torchy's managers were asked to produce the non-disclosure agreement that DeJesus signed, "they couldn't produce the document."
"I love their tacos," Hembree says. He acknowledges that Torchy's inspired Texas Taco but compares it to the way "Ninfa's created fajitas" before tacos al carbon became a global phenomenon.
Meanwhile, the case has taken a bizarre turn. Hembree says that employees at the Magnolia location discovered one of Torchy's owners "peeing all over our restroom."