Guzman y Gomez founder Steven Marks says speed, quality and a drive-thru will make the Aussie chain successful in the US – which he says has a 'culture of mediocrity'

Guzman y Gomez founder Steven Marks thinks his business will be able to make a strong play in the US. (Photo: Supplied)
  • Australian fast food chain Guzman y Gomez has launched its first store in the United States.
  • Founder Steven Marks says the chain can be successful in the US, despite the country’s many existing Mexican fast food restaurants.
  • Marks says the key to success will be GYG’s balance between speed and quality, as well as its drive-thru offering.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The history of Australian fast food chains attempting to make it big in the US is brief and very bloody.

Pie and pastry chain Pie Face tried to pull it off in 2011, opening seven locations in New York before meeting an ignominious end in 2014.

Similarly, local Portuguese burger chain Oporto gave California a crack in 2011, but called it quits on 2013. Luckily, we were able to get an LA Weekly story alleging Oporto had “a cult following in Australia on the scale of In-N-Out in California” before the stores were converted into significantly less Aussie “Feisty Chicken Grill” locations.

But Steven Marks, the founder of Guzman y Gomez, the latest Aussie chain to give the US a crack, firmly believes his particular brand of Mexican-style fast food can occupy a unique place in the American market.

“Nobody in America is doing what we do,” Marks told Business Insider Australia. “Nobody has the combination of speed and quality that [Guzman y Gomez] has, and nobody is doing it with our quality of ingredients.”

From Newtown to Naperville

This month, Guzman y Gomez opened the doors of its first US location, in the wealthy Chicago exurb of Naperville. The photos of the familiar Guzman yellow logo situated against a snowy Illinois landscape are either going to fill you with national pride or a profound sense of spiritual vertigo.

Guzman y Gomez

You would likely be immediately dubious that a chain from Australia – a country in which great Mexican food is notably absent – would have anything to bring to the US, which is famous for its approach to cuisine from south of the border.

Marks, who hails from New York and says bringing his restaurant “home” has always been a goal, believes there’s a gap in the market which Guzman y Gomez can occupy.

“We now have a beautiful, two-lane drive thru restaurant in Naperville we built in an old bank, which was perfect,” Marks said. “Our quality of food with a drive-thru, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, is what sets us apart from the rest of the market.”

The way Marks put it, there is a low-end of Mexican fast food in the US, typified by chains like Taco Bell and Del Taco. Above that is Chipotle, whose name has become shorthand for Mexican fast food in the US and operates over 2,500 restaurants.

However, Chipotle operates under a model similar to Subway, in which customers select ingredients while an employee makes their meal in front of them. Rival Australian chain Mad Mex operates under the same model, which makes a drive-thru offering infeasible.

Guzman y Gomez

That middle sweet spot – quality Mexican fast food offering a set menu with speed and convenience – is where Marks sees Guzman operating in the US.

But unlike in Australia, which had little else in the way of Mexican food when Guzman launched its first restaurant in Newtown in 2006, the market in the US is mature, and also features numerous independent eateries in any given city – something Australia lacks.

Marks argues the Australian experience has steeled the company for a launch in the US, which he says has a “culture of mediocrity”.

“In Australia, labour costs are high and food costs are high, so if you’re going to be successful you have to have a really great product,” he said.

As for the future, Marks is pretty optimistic.

“We intend on opening hundreds, if not thousands of GYG locations across the US, and, while this won’t be our last, I want our very first in Naperville to be the one everyone knows about and visits,” he said.

Thousands sounds like a lot. “I just really believe in the brand,” he added.

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