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The Improbable Quest to Bring Back Naugles

The taco-burger chain shut down in 1995, but fans still crave their “cheese burritos.” Can ‘90s nostalgia revive the brand?

On a hot afternoon in early October, at a shaded picnic table looking out over the white sands and blue sky of Huntington Beach, California, I found myself eating an extremely improbable lunch.

It wasn’t that my hard-shell taco, Naugleburger and pineapple shake looked, smelled or tasted particularly freakish. The red sauce was pleasantly zesty on the taco, the shake was thick and only lightly pineappley, and the Naugleburger’s two cheesy patties were held together by a solid potato bun.

Realistically, though, none of it should have existed. Naugles had been dead for 20 years.

But Christian Ziebarth, a 47-year-old web designer and taco blogger in Orange County, is on a 10-year quest to bring it back. In the process, he’s managed to wrest control of the Naugles name away from its corporate owner, Del Taco, re-create the flavors of the past and actually open a couple of restaurants, despite having no experience in fast food.

Last month, Ziebarth made a big announcement: Naugles is teaming up with Fransmart — the franchising giant that’s turned brands like Five Guys and The Halal Guys into household names — to expand to 100 locations in the next “five or six” years. Eventually, Ziebarth says, he hopes to see 1,000 Naugles restaurants spread across the country, blanketing the nation with their trademark blend of nostalgia, beef and cheese.

Remember it or not, Naugles is back, and it’s coming your way.

But first, like… what is Naugles?

If you aren’t old enough to remember it, you might be tempted to try a Spanish-ish pronunciation. Now-glaze?

Nope. It’s Naugles, like Noggles, as in Dick “Dutch” Naugle, a partner in Del Taco who left the growing chain behind to start the Riverside, CA taco-burger shop in 1970. By 1995, Naugles had grown to 218 locations, from the West Coast to the banks of the Mississippi, and attained late-night legend status as the first chain with a 24-hour drive-through.

“At 2 in the morning, everybody had to go eat something,” remembers Karel (aka Charles Bouley), a talk radio host, writer and longtime fan of the brand. “So after the club, every queer in the world went to Naugles.”

But it wasn’t just the odd hours — the food on its gringo-Mexican mashup menu was actually good. There was the taco burger (a bun topped with loose beef taco filling), the Ortega burger (just a regular beef patty topped with pickled Ortega peppers), the Naugles taco bowls (a mix of beans and beef, served with taco shells for dipping), and the holy grail of Naugles nostalgia, the eternally adored and painfully mourned “cheese burrito,” which was literally just a rolled-up quesadilla.

Back in the day

“Naugles was just Americanized Mexican food, but it was more than that,” Bouley says. “No place to this day makes a cheese burrito like Naugles. It was delicious — that green sauce will make you cry.”

Weird details abounded, adding to the Naugles mystique. Every cup had Dick Naugle’s face printed on it. A two-minute timer would start running as soon as you ordered, with the food guaranteed to be free if it took any longer. Thanks to an in-line cooling system that the chain pioneered, the drinks were always ice-cold by the time they hit the cup — and the options included plain milk and grape juice. And then there was Dick Naugle’s unabashedly bizarre motto, printed on every receipt and installed in every store, written in some kind of hyper-efficient business-English:

Then it all disappeared, softly, like a sliver of shredded cheese melting into the murk of a Naugles chili bowl. In the late ‘80s, the chain was sold back to a parent company that, through a series of confusing, ‘80s-style corporate swashbuckles, also ended up owning Del Taco. Soon, all the Naugles restaurants in the nation were either converted into Del Tacos or shut down. By 1995, Naugles was no more.

The Naugles revival started on a slow Monday in the waning weeks of 2005, when Ziebarth, bored at his IT job, decided to start a food blog. “I was dinking around, doing a lot of web surfing in my cubicle,” Ziebarth says, “and I thought, I’ve been in Orange County all my life, but I keep going to the same three Mexican restaurants — so I decided I’d start going to a new one every chance I could, then write them up.”

A year into the project, titled Orange County Mexican Restaurants, Ziebarth started writing about the restaurants of yesteryear. “Naugles, RIP” was just a one-paragraph post with his own memories and what little history he could glean from the internet. He couldn’t even find a picture of the place.

“All of a sudden, I was getting a ton of traffic from people just searching for Naugles,” Ziebarth recalls. “A lot of people thought they were the one remaining Naugles fan, looking to see if somebody out there on the planet remembered Naugles too.” Naugles lovers started writing to him; many people were trying to figure out how how to cobble together a Naugloid meal from the Del Taco menu. In January, 2008, Ziebarth posted a petition on his blog that asked Del Taco to reintroduce some Naugles items for the new year.

Seven months later, a representative of Del Taco met with him at a Del Taco near their headquarters. “When I said that I really thought they should bring back Naugles stuff,” Ziebarth recalls of the meeting, “I still remember how the PR rep leaned back in her chair, made a thoughtful sound, and went, ‘You know what? That’s a really good idea — I should take that back to the marketing people.’”

But then, after a few lame email exchanges, nothing. “The line went dead.”

Nearly a year after that meeting, Ziebarth heard about a piece of trademark law that would shape the rest of his life. If a trademark isn’t exercised regularly — printed in public, used to sell hats, etc. — then it can fall into the legal category of “abandonment,” at which point someone else can ask for ownership from the U.S. Patent Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).

An idea began to percolate: that he, Christian Zierbarth, food blogger and web developer, might be able to revive Naugles on his own by snatching the name away from Del Taco. The commenters — the people — demanded it.

Ziebarth, in front, with former Naugles employees, in front of the new test kitchen (courtesy Christian Ziebarth)

Sure, he knew nothing about IP law or the restaurant business, but he was looking for a change anyway. He had only fallen into web design by accident — back in college, at Brigham Young University’s Oahu campus (“Yup! I’m Mormon”), he had wanted to be a psychologist, but found he had a knack for HTML while killing time at a boring campus security job. After Oahu, he moved back to the O.C., and had been doing the same thing in the same place ever since.

And for a gringo Mormon guy, he had unexpected family ties to California-Mexican cuisine. When Ziebarth was a kid, his dad would make chile rellenos and chorizo based on recipes his own mother had picked up while working at a Mexican restaurant in the L.A. suburbs in the 1940s and ‘50s. “I’ve still never found chile rellenos or chorizo to match those,” Ziebarth says.

His dad was an adventurous eater, too, constantly seeking out “hole-in-the-wall places that were clearly authentic,” Ziebarth says, back when foodies were still into French cuisine. ”If food blogs had been around when I was a teenager, he might have been the original Jonathan Gold.”

But before he set out to snag the Naugles name, Ziebarth tried to convince Del Taco to just revive the brand themselves, one last time, using LinkedIn.

A Naugles menu from 1971 (courtesy Christian ZIebarth)

“I wrote to this guy and said, ‘I gotta be really pointed here: I think you’re sitting on a gold mine, and don’t think you should ignore it,’” Ziebarth says. “After I waited, and didn’t hear back, I was like: Okay, greenlight.” The Naugles revival was on.

Based on Ziebarth’s research, Del Taco hadn’t used the Naugles name for anything meaningful since 1995, so the case for abandonment seemed pretty straightforward when Ziebarth made his case less than a year later. Del Taco, though, filed motion after motion to delay the case, insisting that Ziebarth needed to prove he had “bona fide intent” to put the Naugles name to use before the TTAB could plausibly hand him a victory.

“We were under the gun to show that we were doing something with the trademark, even though we didn’t have it yet,” Ziebarth says. “So we were just like, the heck with it, let’s do a pop-up.” Which meant they had to make some food.

Consider the challenge of the cheese burrito (bottom right):

“People are really, really into it,” Ziebarth says, though he doesn’t totally get why. It’s just a flour tortilla covered in melted cheese, topped with a little bit of salsa (red or green), and then rolled up. And for some reason, the burrito itself is steamed — the tortilla is covered in cheese, then placed face-up in an industrial food steamer before being burrito-ized.

Seems dead simple, practically after-school microwave food. But the Naugles dudes couldn’t just many any old cheese burrito — they had to create the precise cheese burrito of their customers’ youths. If the food didn’t match up to those memories, bite for bite, the whole venture would flop. So how do you cook up an edible time machine?

First, the sauce and the cheese had to be right. The Naugles crew managed to get their hands on old recipes from original Naugles employees, but even those weren’t that helpful — some spices, like chili powder, taste so different from factory to factory that there was no way to know if the flavor was on point.

Then there was the fact that no one really understands why, exactly, you would steam a burrito. John Smittle, the chef who’s Fountain Valley sandwich spot they used as the venue for the pop-up, and who’s since become the Naugles house chef, theorizes that it was a trickle-down technique from a late-‘70s fine dining trend of serving “steamed bread” before a meal, like some sort of pseudo-French luxury.

A smoked chicken taco, an item on the new Naugles menu

In the end, the team navigated their way to historically accurate flavortown by combining the old recipes with current ingredients and their personal taste memories — in the interest of tradition, they decided to keep steaming the burritos.

But in one respect, they chose to intentionally diverge from OG-accuracy. “Our whole intent was to clean up the food, too,” says Dan Dvorak, Ziebarth’s partner and a former Marine. The nacho sauce is made in-house from actual cheddar cheese, none of the salsas are made with preservatives, and the beef is actually beef, as opposed to a pink slime blend.

“Based off of our informal study, I’ll say it seems like we’re well above 70 to 80 percent success,” Dvorak said. “In the sense that most people who remember Naugles say it tastes just like what they remember.”

“But to be honest with you, even I don’t remember exactly what the food tasted like 30 years ago.” After all the painstaking trial and error, there’s no way to ever really know how close they got, beyond the feedback they get from fans.

The new bun taco with the Naugles motto

The one-day pop-up was a hit. As soon as they opened the doors, in October 2014, customers made it clear that they’d gotten the flavors right. Demand so outstripped the expectations of the Naugles team that they ended up running out of food before the day was done.

“People were lined up out the door,” remembers Gustavo Arellano, the editor of the OC Weekly, who wrote the book on tacos. “And when they got their food, you could tell that they were essentially experiencing their teenage years, their college years, all over again — they were loving it.”

Within a year of that blowout premiere, bona fide intent clearly shown, the TTAB declared that Del Taco had, in fact, abandoned their trademark. Twenty years after it had last set, the Naugles sun could once again shine over Southern California.

Now Ziebarth and his partners had to actually open a restaurant.

Soon after the ruling, Ziebarth turned the pop-up location into a permanent test kitchen, open to the public on weekends. And again, just keeping up with demand, especially in the early days, was tough, with lines around the block and early closing times after they ran out of food.

“I stood in line for an hour and 45 minutes to get my combo burrito and cheese burrito,” Bouley says, describing when the test kitchen first opened in the summer of 2015. “And I don’t wait in line — I had a chance to meet Streisand once, after one of her shows. When I was told I’d have to wait 45 minutes, I just left. But I waited for Naugles.”

Naugles at the beach (courtesy Naugles’ Instagram)

But 18 months into official Naugledom, there’s still no real Naugles, at least in the eyes of its reviver. The spot by the beach opened at the beginning of summer 2016, and has seen brisk sales from the basking masses, but it’s just a stopgap, according to Ziebarth. By mid-November, they plan to shut it down, and open up the test kitchen for business every day of the week to compensate.

The reborn Naugles needs a flagship, with a full-sized dining room and the iconic 24-hour drive-through, serving up nachos all night. The problem isn’t money — investors had stayed away during the trademark fight, but now a handful have thrown their weight behind the nascent company. Ziebarth says they have a big enough war chest to pounce on a good location, but the O.C. fast-food real estate market is just too hot.

Last month, the company announced its plans to open 1,000 restaurants across the land, in partnership with Fransmart. Given that Naugles currently has just one test kitchen and zero legit restaurants (by their own estimation) to their names, this sounds a little unlikely.

The scene at the Huntington Beach location (courtesy Christian Ziebarth)

Fransmart, however, has pulled off this kind of expansion before. In 2001, when they teamed up with Five Guys, the burger joint had just five restaurants around the D.C. suburbs. Within a year and a half, Five Guys had 300 locations around the country. Today, Five Guys has more than 1,000 locations around the globe, with plans to open 1,500 more in the near future.

And more importantly, Ziebarth has a habit of making his improbable dreams come true. This is the mild-mannered IT guy who vanquished Del Taco, conjured a business out of dormant, drunk Gen-X nostalgia, and solved the riddle of the historically accurate cheese burritoid.

He’s already managed to rip Naugles out of the past and into the present, fueled by little more than a bunch of blog posts. Now that he’s got an endless supply of bun tacos to keep him going, there’s no telling how far he could carry the Naugles name into the future, into a world where Naugleburgers and pineapple shakes are sold on each corner, all night, from drive-throughs that are always open, attached to restaurants that will never disappear, leaving another Naugles-shaped hole in the universe, ever again.