Taco Bueno CEO Michael Roper has dropped in at fast-food chain restaurants many times.
"I do get in the field a lot, right, and ... work side by side with the crew members," he says as the lunch crowd begins filling the Taco Bueno location at Interstate 635 and MacArthur Boulevard in Irving. "As a matter of fact, multiple times a year we close our offices down and we take everybody in the office and we have to go work in a store. You get to see where your training problems are. It kind of helps you learn a little bit about how to make some changes so that it's easier for people to understand what you're doing."
But this time, no one knew he was coming. Chances are, they wouldn't have recognized him if they did. He had a bit of fun changing up his look: Roper was unrecognizable with a buzz cut and a goatee on his normally clean-shaven face.
"One of the things I discovered when I became CEO was as soon as that title changes, people quit talking to you, like instantaneously."
"So I was really excited about going undercover with nobody knowing where I was gonna be," he said. "I didn't want anybody preparing for anything. That's why it worked out really well for the show. You literally walk in completely blind to this whole thing, not having any idea what you're about to experience, which is exactly what I wanted to have happen."
This was quite different than when he used to drop into the Taco Bueno near the offices and say, "Let's make some tacos."
Taco Bueno had been approached about doing the show before Roper became CEO in 2015, but had demurred. But when Undercover Boss came calling this time, he was all for it.
He has a theory about why the show came back around. The regional chain that has almost 200 restaurants won America's Favorite Mexican QSR Chain last year.
"We beat everybody," he said. "We beat Chipotle, we beat Taco Bell, all the big guys. I think that's what put us back on their radar. ... So they came out, interviewed me, I said, 'Yeah, let's try this thing and see what happens.' "
As it happens, he did "crash and burn" while trying to operate a forklift during his time in the warehouse. But he had fun working the drive-through lane, something he had never done.
The regional Tex-Mex chain is having some fun with his appearance, too. Walk into a store through Friday, mention Undercover Boss and you'll get a free secret side of something dubbed "Undercover Sauce."
Friday is a big day for Roper and the chain. Taco Bueno will officially launch "Shop and Ship." Food can be ordered via tacobueno.com and shipped anywhere within the continental U.S. For him? Well, he rented a theater so that he and about 100 people can watch the episode for the first time.
And he'll live-tweet the experience so customers can join in the fun. And he will probably have his menu favorite close to him: "The chicken taquito is the bomb. You dip it in jalapeno ranch and ... mmm."
3 things he learned on 'Undercover Boss':
1. 'It is a hard job.'
"A lot of times people don't give credit for working in fast food. You're on your feet a lot, it's hot, you've gotta move fast, it's new technology. You're working with the public, whatever might be, and things change a lot. This day, this is on sale, next day, this is a new product rolling out, oh then we just changed the menu. You're trying to learn all of that, and everything else is going on at once. So that's an aha moment, if you want to say that."
2. 'You don't know what the story is behind people.'
"I think this is probably the most important thing that I got out of all of this stuff, was you see your crew members day in and day out, and they're up there every day smiling at the customers, trying to go fast, trying to be really polite and everything and ... you don't know what they're going through. Whatever it is, there's stuff going on behind the scenes that you don't see all the time when you're dealing with people. You know, and that was kind of an aha moment when you see that, as well. All the turmoil and trouble ... but still able to keep this great attitude and great work ethic. It was just a really great feeling to see that, right? And then try to figure out how you can help people and do some things different."
3. 'You see your shortcomings.'
"I was very nervous. I learned very quickly how hard some of these positions are."