High above the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park, Taco John's is reimagining tacos and how to make them.

The company last month opened a new state-of-the-art test kitchen, where chefs and researchers are developing new recipes and experimenting with new gadgets. There's a tortilla conveyor to help fry taco shells to an optimal temperature and a special freezer that drops the eatery's famous "potato olés" into baskets akin to a coin dispenser.

"One of the ways we feel we will continue to be successful in the future is with extensive product testing," said Barry Westrum, Taco John's chief marketing officer, during a tour of the space. "There's an art and science to product development and having the science facility where we can [in] real time get feedback from consumers on new products, procedures and flavors."

The test kitchen is part of a 20,000-square-foot restaurant support center that Taco John's created in offices above the West End shops.

The center, which currently offices about 30 employees with space for more, helps run the chain's operations, supply chain, marketing and technology. Taco John's main headquarters remains in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Minnesota has Taco John's highest concentration of stores, with nearly half of the brand's restaurants located within a four-hour drive of Minneapolis.

Taco John's will open a store in Burnsville and Eagan next month, both part of only a handful of stores owned by the company and not franchisees.

The locations will help serve as first adopters of various new restaurant technology and equipment features like a new cloud-based commerce platform still in the works that will integrate everything from menu displays to worker schedules.

The company chose the St. Louis Park location because of its convenience for its employees, who have mostly returned to working in the office. "We loved this area so much because of its access to retail, restaurants and such," Westrum said.

In early 2020, before the pandemic, Taco John's set up a temporary office in the Twin Cities with the intention of including a test kitchen, but the pandemic threw a wrench in plans.

Over the last two years, Taco John's like many other fast-casual eateries saw a jump in drive-thru and pick-up orders. Due to demand, Taco John's is exploring more drive-thru-only restaurants. It currently has two in South Dakota.

"From the pandemic, what we learned is we can do as much business through the drive-thru as we did with the dining room and the drive-thru pre-pandemic," said Jim Creel, Taco John's chief executive.

This summer, competitor Taco Bell also opened a drive-thru only location in Brooklyn Park.

Earlier this year, Taco John's launched a new points-based loyalty program to replace its visits-based program. Since the change, the number of transactions for loyalty points went up by a third and users jumped 10%.

The company will have opened 16 locations by the end of this year, the most it has done since 2006. The plan is to open more than 20 stores a year in the next three years.

Sales have continued to grow during the pandemic. Same-store sales at Taco John's grew 4.3% from 2019 to 2020, 6.2% in 2021, and so far this year sales are up 4.6%.

Taco John's would have opened more restaurants if it weren't for delays with construction supplies and a shortage of contractors, Creel said. There have also been supply chain disruptions that have made some items less available and increased the cost of common ingredients like chicken breast, said Richard Bundy, chief financial officer. The company has also experienced challenges in finding workers.

The test kitchen the company opened in October has developed improvements it plans to roll out to all of its locations. It has already found ways to decrease the heat and humidity in kitchens by using new appliances. Some technological advancements, like a machine that helps keep eggs and tortillas warm, helps preserve the food's quality as well as shave off valuable seconds of prep time.

"Our consumer is interested in high-quality products that are different than they can get elsewhere in the category," Westrum said. "That's what we continue to focus on."