Taco Casa’s Menu Items are Consistently Made to Order
Rod Wilkin runs Taco Casa with sons Brett Wilkin, Rod Wilkin II, son-in-law Shannon Formby and Ben Wilkin. (R to L)
Not much has changed at Taco Casa in the 46 years since Rod Wilkin opened the first restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but that’s what makes it an institution in the college town. Through hard work and a dedication to quality, Wilkin says patrons know they can visit any one of his six locations and the food will taste exactly the same as it did four decades ago.
“I had a guy come back to town last Christmas who worked in one of my stores 40 years ago and he said the food tastes exactly the same,” Wilkin remembers. “It was the first time he had eaten here in many years. That’s the key. We don’t try to change anything. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Taco Casa prides itself on the quality of its menu items, Wilkin says, which is achieved by sourcing fresh ingredients. The company sources a truckload of cheese from Wisconsin every few months and its meat is a 90/10 blend of sirloin and ground chuck. The meat is ground right before it is delivered to each store on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The company uses about 30,000 pounds of beef per month and that amount didn’t change during the coronavirus pandemic.
The chili is made fresh daily — it takes about four hours — and pinto beans are sorted and soaked overnight before they are cooked to Taco Casa’s standards. Taco Casa does not have a commissary, so each store manager is responsible for cooking menu items daily and following the company’s recipes exactly to maintain consistency.
While items are cooked and chopped in advance, each order is made fresh and nothing is assembled until a patron places their order. Taco Casa even maintains quality and consistency when shipping orders across the country. Burritos are frozen, put on dry ice and delivered to a customer the next morning.
Wilkin thinks a majority of out-of-state orders come from University of Alabama graduates and family or friends of former students and residents. To date, the company has shipped to 37 states and recently added Idaho to its list. Recently, Taco Casa had two different orders from Alaska in the same week.
Keeping the Faith
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taco Casa never missed a day. The dining room was closed, but that didn’t stop customers from lining up in the drive-thru. “Cars were wrapped around the building,” Wilkin reports. “People were lined up right when we opened and through until closing.”
Business continued as such until the first week in May, when Taco Casa opened its stores for customers to order and dine inside. Each location moved its tables around to ensure people could maintain six feet of social distancing. “We don’t have many people come in, and if we do fill up inside it is only for a few minutes,” Wilkin says. “Three-quarters of the people who come in get orders to go. I don’t think people feel comfortable sitting down to eat just yet.”
Inside each store, employees wear masks and gloves at all times. Wearing gloves was a standard cleanliness procedure at Taco Casa even before the pandemic. “We are very conscious of staying clean and wiping everything down,” Wilkin adds.
Wilkin attributes Taco Casa’s ongoing success and its ability to stay afloat amid the pandemic to his faith. “The Lord and I are close and He takes care of me,” he says. “My business is just as good when it was just the outside drive-thru as it was when I had both inside dining and the drive-thru. The Lord has taken care of us. My employees never missed a minute and they have been able to stay employed and get paid, which quite a few thanked me for staying open.”
The Lord was always on Wilkin’s “list,” he says, but his faith hadn’t been a priority until 45 years ago when he was told he had 30 days to live. At just 27 years old in 1975, Wilkin had a wife, two children and a successful business. But he also had a mole on his back. A surgeon told him that the mole was Stage 4 melanoma, and recommended Wilkin start praying.
Wilkin got a Bible and started reading. He found this scripture that resonated with him and he continues to recite it by heart today: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.”
Three weeks later at 3 a.m., Wilkin was awakened by hot and cold flashes that lasted for three minutes. “I had total peace and went back to sleep,” he remembers. “The next day I had to go to the doctor who told me they were going to cut the lymph nodes out from under my arm. I said I didn’t need surgery, because I felt God touched my body last night.”
The surgeon still emphasized the importance of the surgery to which Wilkin consented. Three days after, the surgeon said he removed 56 lymph nodes and they were all clear. After that experience, Wilkin and his wife have attended church regularly and even had a ministry at their home to pray with people who are ill. There have been up to 300 people at their home at one time.
Wilkin says the support of the Tuscaloosa community has helped the company successfully operate during the pandemic. Taco Casa planned to open a seventh location in the area, but the pandemic put that on hold. He also remains firm on not franchising his business.
“We could have as many stores as we want, but I want the quality to remain in the stores,” Wilkin says. “I want to be in the stores every day, watching and making sure everything is the way the customer would like it.”