While there is no such thing as a free lunch, exceptions to the rule may apply. One small San Francisco restaurant offered free meals for life to those who were willing to wear their logo, for life. In more than a century in its business, Cafe Sanchez twice offered this free food for tattoos promotion to its customers, risking great loss of revenue if all the meals were claimed.
Casa Sanchez San Francisco has been a staple in offering salsa and tortilla chips to the city since the 1920’s, using Mexican recipes to spice up the appetites of citizens in the area.
It became the first company in the U.S. to sell freshly-packaged salsa, and its products continue to sell around the San Francisco Bay Area to this day.
Other than commercial food production, the company owned a taqueria (Mexican restaurant), but it merged with another local restaurant in 2012 before it ultimately closed for good in 2015.
In this taqueria, Casa Sanchez launched a promotion that ran twice in its long-running business that spawned a tale of generosity for San Franciscans to tell.
Martha Sanchez introduced a promotion in 1998 that allowed people to get free lunches for life, as long as they get a tattoo of the company’s logo – a young boy named “Jimmy the Cornman” who is riding on a cob of corn shaped like a rocket.
It was believed that the deal would be very costly, as the Sanchez family was said to risk $5.8 million worth of free burritos. The numbers would have surely been dangerously high should 50 or more people get their tattoos and claim their free meals.
“If everyone who is entitled to a free burrito demands his free burrito, the Sanchez family does not know what, exactly, it is going to do about it.” SFGATE wrote in a 1999 article on the deal.
However, for a few of the deal’s first tattooed customers, it was never about the food, but the experience of getting their first tattoo.
The importance of the tattoo
Greg Tietz, who was 35 that year, was a recent arrival to San Francisco and wanted to start fresh. When deciding on his first tattoo, he wanted it to be “special.” His uncertainty about the image for his first inking is a feeling shared by many first-timers.
“Like, boy this really needs to be special, really needs to mean something. I’m nervous about it.” said Tietz.
It was then that Tietz got word from a friend named Guido Brenner, who already had about a dozen tattoos, about a sweet deal he found.
Tietz said, “I caught a co-worker friend of mine who had probably a dozen or more tattoos, saying, ‘You should come check this place out with me and see what you think of the offer,’ and helped me find a good tattoo artist.”
Talking to SFGATE, Brenner, currently heading security at Bottom of the Hill, lived in San Francisco all his life and knew the local Mexican food “like the back of [his] hand.” Other than the delicious food, he especially liked the art of the tattoo.
Brenner and Tietz both became the second and third people to have the Casa Sanchez logo fixed on their bodies – the first person having gotten the tattoo voluntarily before word came out about the promotion.
Family deal gone viral
According to Brenner, that first person loved the logo so much that she had it tattooed on her. When she showed it to the owner, Martha Sanchez, she was quickly rewarded with a free lunch for life.
At first, Martha’s sister was against the deal to get tattoos for an eternally free lunch. Every time Martha put up signs of the promotion, she would constantly remove them until, finally, she gave up after much persistence.
Sooner or later, the deal was making headlines across San Francisco , finding itself in weekly alternative newspapers before being picked up by KPIX and the San Francisco Chronicle.
“She was savvy with media, trying to publicize the offer, and she was like, ‘Here’s the first guy to get the tattoo.” said Tietz.
The next day, after Brenner and Tietz got their tattoos, the story of the tattoo-for-taco deal began to attract customers, who later came with tattoos of the logo etched on their bodies.
As the story started to fade from local news, it then achieved national attention, having been shared or broadcasted in outlets like The Associated Press, CNN and All Things Considered, the latter of which Martha was interviewed for the NPR program. Tietz himself was also made a guest on the talk show Leeza, where he got to sit next to Jennifer Flavin, Sylvester Stallone’s wife, and actor D.B. Sweeney.
“I was just like the guy that they kept teasing,” he said. “Like, ‘This guy gets free food for life and wait till you hear what he had to do.’”
Soon enough, the promo brought worldwide fame – Tietz appeared on both a German and Chinese TV show. But in the end, Tietz and Brenner’s fame was short-lived. The public rarely treats them as celebrities and they continue to live normal lives.
As far as Casa Sanchez is concerned, the deal has become a unique prospect of charity and goodwill that only San Francisco can boast. It is quite the sight to see – people tattooing themselves with a cute logo of a boy riding a corn-like rocket, so they can enjoy a favorite meal for free forever, just as long as that little logo remains embedded on them.
When recession hit the U.S. in 2010, Casa Sanchez brought back the promotion as a “stimulus special,” spawning yet another media craze with KPIX and The Wall Street Journal revisiting the story of the Casa Sanchez tattoo deal and the people who took it up, like Tietz, who continues to enjoy his tacos today.
While businesses need to make money in order to keep afloat, it is equally important for companies to build a relationship with their customers. An act of generosity, big or small, will go a long way to show people that you can be trusted, and make them feel happier about supporting you.