Tijuana Flats Founder Recruits Sons to Start a New Concept
Brian Wheeler, founder of Tijuana Flats and Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen, is opening a new restaurant concept with his son, Jake Wheeler, called Big Taco – a nod to Brian’s nickname. Brian’s younger son, Gavin, is also expected to join the operation after graduating from LSU in 2025. The restaurant will open in November in the Orlando, Fla., suburb of Casselberry, and will carry on a family tradition that began in 1995.
That’s when Brian opened his first Tijuana Flats, located in Winter Park, Fla. He was able to achieve that milestone thanks to a $20,000 loan from his dad, Chester, who eventually left his 30-career at a Fortune 500 company to take on the role of CFO at the budding chain. Tijuana Flats has since grown to over 140 locations in four states – Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, and Virginia – but Brian sold the business in 2015 to a private equity group. Upon his exit, he ramped up Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen to three locations in Florida, which is where Jake, 23, began earning industry experience. Now Jake, who recently graduated from Rollins College, is ready to take off the training wheels, and he is looking forward to carrying on the family business.
“Growing up, I’ve seen the hard work, friendships, and success my father has had in the business. I’m very lucky to be given the opportunity to continue such a legacy and I feel it’s one I can’t pass up,” he said. “I’ve been working in these restaurants my entire life, and I realized we are more than a place that just serves food. We create a very unique community filled with people from different walks of life. It truly is something special and I hope to continue it for years and years to come.”
For Brian, the opening of Big Taco is part of a vision he’s had since first opening Tibby’s. At that time, a little over 10 years ago, Jake and Gavin were too young to get involved, but Brian always envisioned a project they could be a part of from the beginning.
“Their growing knowledge of restaurant operations fueled this new direction,” he said, adding that Gavin has also worked at Tibby’s through high school and college breaks. “Once he has his diploma in hand, he’ll be jumping right into the thick of it with Jake, shoulder to shoulder, building up Big Taco.”
What will that look like? According to the family, Big Taco will feature an authentic, made-to-order Tex-Mex menu with items such as tacos, tostada salads, chili-smother burritos, and chimichangas. The restaurant’s vibe is “eclectic with the essence of old Las Vegas.”
“My aim with Big Taco is to revisit the heart of Tex-Mex, emphasizing its simplicity and reviving the strong culture of my former brand,” Brian said.
He said Big Taco will stand out in a crowded category because it is a “service-first quick casual” concept.
“It might sound like a term we created — and well, we did — but it captures our spirit perfectly. Instead of just having cashiers, we have our ‘guest service ambassadors,’” he said. “Beyond the mundane task of ringing up orders, they’re there to enhance the guest experience. Also, we’ve removed the front-of-house trash cans. We handle all that, ensuring your food is served to your table, and afterward, we clean up your mess.”
Brian said the food will also differentiate Big Taco.
“Our food mantra is simplicity. We let quality ingredients stand out, providing a unique dining experience without the typical assembly-line feel. Also, a lot of places just over-engineer their products. It seems these days that many places want to spin their own version of a taco. To us, a taco is just a taco – simple, made to order with flavorful and high-quality ingredients,” he said.
He believes the concept will thrive because of its distinctiveness, quality, and operational focus. That said, he adds it’s too early to understand the growth potential of the Big Taco brand. His son Jake is a bit more ambitious, noting that he’d like a second location open by the end of the year. This divergence in expectations is not atypical for a pragmatic, lifelong entrepreneur and someone who is just getting started, and that is perhaps the biggest intrigue behind this launch.
“There’s something truly special about working with family,” Brian said. “I genuinely believe they can take it as high as they dream. The sky’s the limit, but it’s their call. I’m just excited to be part of it, cheering them on, and offering guidance every step of the way.”