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Food Fight: It's Torchy's vs. Texas Tacos

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press


HOUSTON (AP) — A Houston-area taco restaurant that proclaims itself "Home of the Outlaw Tacos" is just that — an outlaw, according to a competing chain's lawsuit accusing its rival of stealing gourmet fast-food recipes from its "Taco Bible" and blatantly duplicating menu items.

Torchy's Tacos, founded in Austin and with 20 outlets around Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, contends the "chef-inspired" items touted on the menu at the three-store Texas Taco Co. chain are indeed inspired — by Torchy's — and the result of "theft of trade secrets and breaches of duties" by a former employee who wound up working at the smaller Houston upstart.

In a Harris County lawsuit, Torchy's seeks unspecified damages and a court injunction blocking use of confidential information gathered from Torchy's "Taco Bible." It also seeks surrender of any information copied from the book, "which contains a start-to-finish recipe and process guide for every one of Torchy's food items."

"Texas Taco, ... in short, is nothing more than a blatant Torchy's rip-off," attorney Allan Neighbors IV said.

Texas Taco has denied the allegations brought against it and the ex-Torchy's grill cook, Mario DeJesus, who was hired by Texas Taco. Both the cook and the restaurant "acted without malice, in good faith ... and breached no duty or obligation owed to (Torchy's)," Matthew Hoeg, lead attorney for Texas Taco, said.

Making a generic taco seems easy. Get a tortilla taco shell. Throw in some cooked meat or fish or seafood. Add shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes, a little shredded cheddar cheese and some spicy sauce. The ingredients and amounts can be as varied as a chef's imagination.

And that's where Torchy's says its bible and "Build Book" separate it from the competition. The books spell out for employees how the food materials are combined, the order they're cooked, the proportions and how the items are assembled.

Chef Michael Rypka, who started with a food trailer and motor scooter in Austin in 2006, has "personally created and developed, or at least approved of all recipes, menu items, food concepts and food designs served at Torchy's," the lawsuit said.

Torchy's says a security camera in the kitchen in one of its Houston stores on March 6 captured DeJesus, who began working there in December 2011, slipping a copy of the "Taco Bible" under his shirt, walking over to a nearby trash can and then taking the can outside.

A Torchy's manager spotted the activity on the video and DeJesus was ordered to return the book. That happened about six hours later. DeJesus then was fired, court documents said.

About two months later, Torchy's found out Texas Taco Co., a new restaurant in Baytown, about 30 miles east of Houston, had a menu similar to theirs. A manager investigated, visited the place, found DeJesus worked there and "food items follow Torchy's descriptions word for word" with only the names changed on the menu.

For example, Texas Taco's "William Travis" is described as: "Hand-battered and fried Portobello mushroom strips with refried black beans, roasted corn, escabeche carrots, queso fresco, cilantro & avocado. Drizzled with ancho aioli on a flour tortilla."

That's also the verbatim menu listing for Torchy's "Republican."

The same is true for others, like its "Baja Shrimp," which Texas Taco calls its "Fried Shrimp." Even the "CHIPOTLE SAUCE" reference on the shrimp item is capitalized on each menu.

Torchy's contends the "Taco Bible" was copied and DeJesus brought his familiarity with the Build Book to Texas Taco in violation of a non-disclosure agreement he signed upon his employment.

Hoeg, Texas Taco's lawyer, is asking for a trial or that the lawsuit be dismissed.

A hearing is set for next month.

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