Surfers wipe the sand from their feet to grab a bite, lifeguards make a quick trip to satisfy their midday craving, and beachgoers from all over New Jersey flood into this hot spot to see what everyone has been talking about. You know the place; the coastal cuisine restaurant that has become a Jersey Shore favorite.
Surf Taco restaurants have become the epitome of beachside dining. With a growing number of eateries up and down the Garden State’s coastline, the seaside chain known for “good food, good people, and good vibes” has become popular with those from all across the state.
Founder and owner of Surf Taco, Rob Nagel, took time to sit down with our team and discuss the original idea, the growth of Surf Taco, and plans for the future.
Surf and Subs
In the 1990s, Rob was living in California with his wife as a member in the domestic Peace Corps. He furthered his education at night at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA in pursuit of his MBA. While sitting in an entrepreneurship class one night, his mind sparked a brilliant idea. What could he offer his oceanfront Cali town that it didn’t already have, but needed? The answer came without hesitation: submarine sandwiches.
As a Jersey Shore native, growing up in Toms River and attending Monsignor Donovan High School (later renamed to Donovan Catholic), Rob knew that whether you called them subs or hoagies – they were a New Jersey staple. There was no large submarine sandwich eatery on the west coast at the time, and he saw the perfect opportunity to capitalize on it and grow a business.
Rob created a thorough business plan as he prepared to launch “Surf and Subs;” the perfect combination of fresh food and carefree beach vibes. His plan encompassed a franchise of restaurants up and down the west coast – a complete market takeover with no sandwich selling competitors in sight. Just as the business plan was becoming an eye-opening reality, Rob and his wife were uprooted from their California home and moving back to New Jersey to care for an ill relative. Rob’s detailed business plans for a submarine sandwich shop may have been left on the west coast, but a glimpse into an abandoned grocery store on the drive back from the airport left Rob’s gears spinning for something new.
What could he offer his Jersey Shore area that it didn’t already have, but needed? This is where the tacos come into play.
In the early 2000s, the Jersey Shore was noticeably filled with sub shops, but there was no sign of tasty Mexican cuisine. Rerouting his original business plans for sub shops on the west coast, Rob decided that he would bring a bit of the Cali lifestyle to the east coast. Surf Taco opened its doors on Memorial Day weekend in 2001 in the family-friendly hotspot vacation town of Point Pleasant Beach, NJ. Located right next to a surf shop, Rob relished in his excitement as his business venture was finally becoming a reality.
With great success in Point Pleasant, Surf Taco opened another location in Manasquan just three short years later. Jersey Shore vacationers loved the relaxed environment and fresh coastal cuisine, while locals quickly coined the restaurant as one of their favorites.
Rob built a small army of advocates who believed in the brand and took interest in promoting it in neighboring beach towns. Looking for feedback from the community, these Surf Taco brand ambassadors found that most people preferred the beef taco over the fish taco, which was assumed to be a classic Surf Taco dish that all would enjoy. The crew took this east coast preference into consideration, but owner Rob promised it wouldn’t just be any ordinary meat taco – it would be done with the Surf Taco style.
Where’d That Sticker Come From?
In the early 2000s, Rob and his team were looking for new, innovative ideas to get the Surf Taco name out there. They were looking for something that would make their brand stick with consumers and remind them to come back for a tasty meal. Although previously used figuratively, Surf Taco took the literal approach and created stickers that represented their brand and beachfront vibe. These colorful stickers appeared on the front of computers, car bumpers, and student folders at school. Surf Taco employees would go around seaside towns and stick them in areas that drew eyes. Promoting a brand using stickers was fairly common on the west coast, however, it was a novelty idea in New Jersey.
As stickers stuck to the nearest telephone pole, the Surf Taco team did not stop there. The crew would make regular appearances at Surf Club, The Stone Pony, and PNC Bank Arts Center to throw out hats revealing their logo. With the intention of creating buzz around their restaurants, Surf Taco was able to establish itself as a unique brand and break through the mundane noise.
A Change in Promotional Methods
Stickers and hats seemed to cause a stir in the beginning, but as we continuously grew into the digital age, it became imperative to adapt; and Surf Taco did just that. Rob finds that with new marketing tactics via social media and web, there is a lot more that can be done with a smaller budget. The issue continues to be, however, channeling all of the content on each promotional avenue.
For a well-known brand like Surf Taco, the coastal cuisine favorite is expected to be relevant, current, and highly engaging when posting on social media and the web. Rob and his team find it to be tremendously time consuming, but rewarding as direct results make it worth their time. Photos of the Jersey Shore, local area hotspots, and consumers grace their social pages. Ultimately, the team is looking to have their brand’s voice consistent and heard through each channel.
Surf Taco provides the perfect products that people love to share: photos of their food. Naturally lending itself to picture-worthy, tasty dishes, consumer-generated content has played a major role in creating enthusiasm around the brand. Rob and his team do not take this for granted, as they are sure to like, comment, and engage with those who have valued their experience at a Surf Taco restaurant and are interested in telling others. At the same time, however, the team does recognize that there are also better ways of thanking customers – with promotional discounts and gift cards, as well as free swag. Nonetheless, all customers who walk through their doors are appreciated and welcomed with open arms by the Surf Taco teams.
A huge part of the Surf Taco experience includes its unique decor. From the music to the murals on the walls, the team supports local artists and uses its restaurants as a safe haven escape from the common everyday drag. Featured artists in Surf Taco restaurants up and down the coastline include Jay Alders, an internationally renowned contemporary artist hailing from Howell, NJ, and Alex Lanau, a self-taught artist that provides surf art pieces for multiple Surf Taco restaurants.
With artists that understand the Surf Taco brand and are looped into their values and sole interest on creating great food for great people, Jay, Alex, and others have been able to express the brand through the strokes of their brushes. Next time you walk into one of the restaurants, be sure to take in the immense murals and detailed wall art.
Just when you thought Surf Taco would have their hands full with preparing food, finding the perfect artists, and promoting their brand, the coastal cuisine favorite proves it can tackle another major project. Surf Taco sponsors surfers to aid in local stars’ dreams to make it big. Giving contest money to their team of wave runners and paying for travel expenses, Rob and his crew value the culture and want to continue to help the sport.
A Social Spike
With over 42,000 likes on Facebook, it is clear that the Surf Taco brand has reached far beyond the Jersey Shore. Rob claims that about six to seven years ago, his social media numbers hit a major spike and completely blew up. Facebook has been a great tool in sharing content for the masses and advertising to groups of people you specifically want to target.
As for the future of Surf Taco, Rob and his team look to ride the ever-changing wave. In 2017, there are plans to expand, cross the New Jersey state lines, and open 2 new restaurants in Florida. One of the new locations in Jupiter, Florida will have a bar and will serve beer and wine, while capitalizing on the laid-back environment. Opening a Surf Taco in Florida “just made sense,” as the weather is warm, the people are relaxed, and the need for coastal cuisine is welcomed.
The Surf Taco team will continue to scout out opportunities that open up and decide if they are a perfect match. Regardless, the native Jersey Shore favorite will continue offering fast service, high-quality and reasonably priced food, and an escape from the everyday routine.