When Tropical Grille founder Lazaro Montoto opened a Tipsy Taco franchise on Woodruff Road late 2019, that was just a teaser of what was to come.
He and partners Tony King and Brian Shelton have now bought the entire Tipsy Taco company — which includes the four corporate locations and the franchising arm — with plans to not only expand in the Upstate, but as far as it will go. Closing on March 9, the transaction was in the works for about four months, and Tipsy founders Roger Carlton and Trish Balentine couldn’t be happier with the result.
“It’s not like we gave this Ferrari to someone who doesn’t know how to drive it,” Carlton says. “They know how to drive it. A lot of times people have the money and not the spirit to run it — but these guys do.”
Montoto and King, owner of Tony’s Pizza & Subs, brought Shelton in specifically to help open the 1133 Woodruff Road franchise while Montoto was elbows-deep opening Tropical Grille locations eight and nine. The addition of Shelton’s experience as senior franchise business consultant with Another Broken Egg Cafe infused the trio with the chutzpah to go after the entire company, if the Tipsy owners were open to it.
Turns out they were.
“I’m 63 years old and have two grandchildren,” Carlton says. “I’m ready to spend time with them.”
They were previously in discussions with a group from Charlotte interested in buying Tipsy Taco, but Carlton says it wasn’t the right fit.
“It’s bittersweet for Trish and [me], but we couldn’t be happier with the group that came in,” he says.
Montoto says when they signed the franchise agreement in October, there was a dream about taking over the company, but it wasn’t a reality until Shelton joined the efforts.
“He was the biggest one pushing us to buy the whole company,” Montoto says of Shelton. “We thought he was a little on the crazy side, but he kept pushing that door. I give a lot credit to him.”
Asked about his five-year goals for Tipsy Taco, Montoto isn’t conservative in his response.
“Five years from now we hope that we have the Carolinas fully covered, into the Atlanta, Georgia, market and on the way towards the West,” he says. “We already have interest in Texas.”
Most of those will be corporate locations, but they will evaluate franchise opportunities as they come in, he says.
Currently Tipsy Taco corporate has two Greenville locations, one in Simpsonville, another in Greer, and its first franchise in Clemson, in addition to the Woodruff Road location. Montoto says the next opportunity will be in Anderson, but isn’t disclosing the location yet.
Montoto draws similarities between Tropical Grille’s and Tipsy’s culture of family, and says the employee loyalty at both is a main reason they have both been as successful as they have been in relatively short amounts of time. Tipsy Taco opened in 2016 and Tropical Grille opened in 2010.
The difference moving from a fast-casual concept to full-service operations is one the three new Tipsy partners are even more comfortable with, since that’s their professional background.
“For all of us it’s second nature,” Montoto says. “That’s what we’ve done in the past.”
While legally out of the game, Carlton and Balentine will continue to be a phone call away as Tipsy grows under the new ownership.
“These guys built a beautiful thing, and we went to honor them,” Montoto says. “We want to lean on those people.”
As for Carlton and Balentine, who has been in kitchens since she was 14, they aren’t quite done doing what they do best, yet.
“I think Trish and I have one more deal in us — one more down the road,” Carlton says. “It’s going to be something Greenville will love.”