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Franchise owners know small from big enchiladas.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

The neon signs say Taco Bell - one of the nation's better-known brands - but the family behind them locally is hardly a giant.

"We're not the big fish that everybody thinks of," said 70-year-old Eduard Weber, Sr., chairman and founder of Weber Enterprises and Weber Coastal Bells, which run 20 Taco Bell outlets in Eugene, Springfield, Coos Bay, Florence, Portland and elsewhere in Oregon.

That may be one of the misconceptions about the taco titan, which has nearly 7,000 restaurants around the globe: "Even though we're part of a larger company, each Taco Bell is owned and operated by local operators," added Edward Weber Jr., president.

Counting founders Eduard and his wife, Marie, of Eugene, and their children and spouses, there are at least 10 Webers in the business.

And the business has been good to them: The Webers have generally opened a new store each year for the last 10 years, and sales for the last three years have exceeded the 3 percent growth that Taco Bell targets, the family says.

The family recently opened the Northwest's first Taco Bell/Long John Silver's in Hillsboro - these "two-in-ones" are the future of fast food, said Edward Weber - and the family is still looking for new opportunities, generally in the Portland area.

"We are a company that's still in a growth mode, looking to expand where it makes sense," the 46-year-old said.

A Ukranian, Eduard Weber lived in Hanover, Germany, then moved to America with his parents in 1952, when he was 17.

His trade in Eugene was sheet metal design. But in 1969, Weber got a deal to buy a Taco Bell at Seventh Avenue and Madison Street. It was one of the first 300 in the Taco Bell family, and Weber had a lot of learning to do.

"I did not know what a taco was," he said.

In the early days, Marie Weber worked the day shift and Eduard Weber covered nights, after his day job. They expanded the business by shopping meticulously for vendors with the best prices on the best food, and doing much of the work themselves.

Now they've got help: Edward Weber and their other three children handle operations, real estate, community relations and technology, while spouses cover everything from maintenance to administration to legal matters.

Michelle Weber, 33, the family's corporate counsel and wife of Daniel Weber, one of Eduard and Marie's four children, said the business has helped the family grow closer.

"It's allowed us to stay together," she said, gesturing to the Weber father and son. "I see both of these guys every day."

"Not all families get along very good, but this family has," Edward Weber said. "It's been a strength."

The family has stayed strong in a hyper-competitive industry where consumers are increasingly demanding diverse menus, made to order, fast and moderately priced.

When the Webers started in 1969, they offered five items on the menu; today you'll find more ingredients in the Taco Bell grilled stuffed burrito, alone.

While slugging it out with the likes of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, the Weber Taco Bells face the additional burden of assembling every item only after it's been ordered.

"We're not staging product," Edward Weber said. "We don't make items ahead of time. We make them to order."

The Webers rely on state-of-the-art food production lines with ingredients positioned to meet the company's lofty expectation for speed: Three minutes, from order to delivery.

"We call it `speed with service,' ' Edward Weber said. "I would lie if I said we're perfect at it."

The typical Taco Bell customer is a HFFU or "who-foo," in company lingo - that's a "high frequency fast food user," and it's typically a male between 18 and 35.

Still, Taco Bell, like all fast-food restaurants, is trying to meet every demographic group's increasing demand for healthy choices.

Taco Bell customers can order items "fresco style" - that's a zippy salsa instead of cheese and sour cream - and the restaurant's salad line and use of beans and all-white chicken meat have always made Taco Bell a comparatively healthy choice, Weber said.

"We haven't had to go out like McDonald's to offer a low-carb item, because Taco Bell traditionally had low-carb items," he said.

In an increasingly made-to-order business, the next order of business for the Weber family is passing the torch to the third generation.

"It's important to Marie and I to see our grandkids maybe succeed in the business we founded 40 years ago," Eduard Weber said.

WEBER ENTERPRISES, INC./WEBER COASTAL BELLS LP

Owners: The Weber family

Family members involved: Eduard Sr. and Marie Weber, founders; their four children: Edward Jr., president; Daniel, real estate; Theresa Johnston, community relations; Joseph, technology and maintenance; Chris Johnston, Theresa's husband, maintenance supervisor; Michelle Weber, Daniel's wife, corporate counsel; Rica Weber, Joseph's wife, administration; and Sunok Weber, Edward Jr.'s wife, general services

Business: Taco Bell franchises

Employees: 450 to 500

Sales: Not disclosed.

Latest news: Won Taco Bell's national leadership award in 2001; won the operational excellence award - given annually to only one franchisee - in 2002; opened the Northwest's first Taco Bell/Long John Silver's earlier this year

Founded: The first Taco Bell opened in 1962 in California; the Webers opened their first in 1969, at Seventh Avenue and Madison Street in Eugene.

Web site: www.webertacobells.com

CAPTION(S):

The Weber family includes Eduard and Marie (front) with (back, from left) Joseph, Rica, Edward Jr., Sunok, Theresa and Chris Johnston, Daniel and Michelle.
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Title Annotation:Business; The Weber family runs 20 Taco Bells in Oregon and plans for growth
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 17, 2004
Words:920
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