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‘The First HFCS-free Quick-Serve in the U.S.’
At Austin-based Cabo Bob's, what started as a simple matter of taste led to a novel quick-serve concept.
image: Cabo Bob's restaurant in Austin, Texas.

When Don Brinkman started developing his Cabo Bob's concept, he decided to put Dublin Dr. Pepper, one of his favorite sodas, on the Mexican restaurant's fountain.

After that, offering several other sodas made with Imperial Pure Cane Sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) seemed a natural choice. And then Brinkman just decided to keep going with it.

“We only had high fructose corn syrup in a few other products, so we quickly took those out,” says the former CEO of Mr. Gatti's.

Within a week of opening, Cabo Bob's was HFCS-free.

But it didn't occur to Brinkman that his decision to purge the sweetener was a novel one until several months later. Now Brinkman touts Cabo Bob's, which opened in July, as the first HFCS-free quick-serve in the U.S.

“My decisions were driven primarily by flavor,” says Brinkman, who shares a nostalgia with his Austin, Texas, customers for old-fashioned soda brands such as XXX Root Beer, Big Red, Nu-Grape, and of course, Dublin Dr. Pepper. For years, he had gone to great lengths to find the bottled version of his favorite soda and knew of several others in the area who shared his experience.

“To me it's an obvious choice,” he says. “You provide what people are looking for.”

While others in the restaurant industry told Brinkman he was crazy for not carrying Coke or Pepsi products, he says his customers rave about having their favorite childhood flavors on tap.

“[Soda] never tasted the same once it was switched to high fructose corn syrup,” Brinkman says, explaining that old recipes were sweeter, something that had to be enjoyed in smaller amounts, not today's 44-ounce standard.

“People like it more, they don't drink as much, and cost-wise it's just about the same as HFCS products,” Brinkman says. “It was a no-brainer from my perspective.”

Switching out the remaining vinegars and barbecue sauce that contained HFCS when the store opened cost only slightly more than replacing the current stock, Brinkman says. The biggest challenge was that traditional providers didn't carry HFCS equivalents; Brinkman had to go through a grocery store distributor to find replacements.

“You have to be a little creative to find the stuff, but once you find it, it's still competitively priced,” he says.

Brinkman didn't even start marketing the health benefits of his decision to customers until recently, when he changed the menus. But the HFCS-free claim falls in line with the Cabo Bob's philosophy, which is to serve healthy, high-quality fast food.

“The only preservative we have anywhere in our restaurant is probably what comes in our mayonnaise because you have to,” Brinkman says.

My decisions were driven primarily by flavor.”

All-natural meats and fresh tortillas made in front of customers in four original flavors—Cilantro Tomatillo, Smokey Cheddar, Ancho Chili, and Buttermilk Flour—round out the offering of fresh, healthy ingredients at Cabo Bob's.

Brinkman's recipe for success seems to be working. Cabo Bob's sales have more than doubled what they were in the first month.

Brinkman currently co-owns only the one location of Cabo Bob's. He wants to work out the kinks before expanding the brand.

“It's a solid concept that could go anywhere,” he says. “To be able to provide your customers with something that's unique and that they truly enjoy, rather than what's the same thing that everyone else has, it's a huge benefit.”

Robin Hilmantel is an editorial intern at QSR.