Rolling with the Times: Lessons Learned from an Austin Restaurant Icon
By: Paul Dodd, SVP of Sales at Compeat
Austin is known for its thriving restaurants, bars, and shops. The city’s culture is deeply rooted in art, music, history, technology, nature, and a little weirdness. Calling yourself an Austinite means you have a certain state of mind and lifestyle – I am proud to be among them.
South Lamar is one of the busiest stretches in Austin. It’s bursting with shopping and dining hotspots for both locals and out-of-town visitors. It is also home to an Austin landmark, Maria’s Taco Xpress, a local icon that is the epitome of Austin’s unique culture. Taco Xpress has been featured in many travel magazines and on several food shows including the Food Network. Guy Fieri’s of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives called the authentic Mexican spot a “dining experience of a lifetime” and “not to be passed up” while Rachael Ray raved about the migas.
The story of Maria’s Taco Express started over 20 years ago. Owner, Maria Corbalan, deemed “South Austin’s Taco Queen” by the Austin Chronicle, came from Argentina with a talent for tacos. She set up a taco truck near a South Lamar convenient store which soon become a favorite for locals. However, things began to look bleak when a large drugstore chain proposed to build on her land. Luckily, local protests resulted in the pharmacy bankrolling construction of a new 300-400 seat restaurant next door to the current location and business began to thrive. That is until the South Lamar area exploded, and local businesses were hit with increasing rent, skyrocketing taxes, and a debilitating labor shortage.
In 2017, news spread that the long and successful run of Taco Xpress was coming to an end. The business almost closed due to the absorbent increase in taxes. At the time the taxes were assessed at $78,000 as compared to the $12,000 they paid when they first opened, driving Maria to want to sell. The property was appraised at more than $3 million that year, up from $760,000 from appraisal records in 2012.
Fortunately, this did not happen. My good friend Fernando Ezeta is the General Manager at Taco Xpress, and I just had to know how they managed to go from being so close to closing their doors to bouncing back to a healthy business in such a competitive market. Fernando shared with us a few secrets of how Taco Xpress remained successful in a drastically changing market, and I hope that these strategic tips will help other entrepreneurs who find themselves in a similar situation.
- Rethink your entire operation. While Taco Xpress was once open from breakfast to well into the night feeding the dinner crowds, they found that their demographic had greatly changed. So much of the local population has moved to the suburbs, that the weekday dinner crowed was dwindling as customers moved out of the area. “The restaurant gets slow between 2:00 – 6:00 PM,” Fernando said. “We could no longer justify being open for dinner every night, so we decided to focus on only weekday breakfast and lunch shifts and special events in the evenings. Being closed several nights per week also allows our staff to be ready for the early shift without feeling consistently overworked. It’s important not to burn out your staff.” The new hours of operation keep them open only when sales can justify the operating expenses.
- Know your strengths. What once was a booming breakfast business has dwindled down due to traffic. “We have always been known for great breakfast tacos. Customers used to swing in daily for breakfast on their way to work in downtown,” said Fernando. “Now due to heavy traffic, what used to be a 7-minute commute from Barton Springs to downtown now takes about 25 minutes. Customers do not have the time to make a breakfast detour with such a long commute.” To combat this, Taco Xpress now provides off-site catering to local businesses. “I have an order of 150 breakfast tacos to deliver at 6:00 AM tomorrow,” add Fernando. “If our loyal customers can’t come to us, we will come to them!”
- Carve your own niche’. Taco Xpress has found a new niche’ in hosting private events. Patrons can rent out the venue during evening hours for private events. My fiancé and I held our rehearsal dinner there and could not have asked for a more memorable event. Despite initial pushback from my fiance’s family that the rehearsal dinner needed to be at a 2 Stars MICHELIN Restaurant, everyone still talks about how amazing our non-traditional event had the most amazing food and drinks and was truly Austin-Unique. We even had a margarita machine using Maria’s original recipe. “People are drawn to us because we have the right balance of eclectic, yet nice,” Fernando stated. “We have a low rental charge, then a per-person flat fee. Customers feel confident that when they book with us, they will have good food and extraordinary service with a reasonable cost.”
- Create a reason to visit. Taco Xpress is as famous for the experience as it is the food. They feature a unique bingo event on the first Tuesday of every month which draws in locals who want to stay and have some fun while avoiding gridlock during the week. And, while weekday business may have changed greatly due to the traffic and congestion, weekend business is still fantastic. Both loyal locals and out-of-town visitors come out on Sunday for fresh mimosas and strawberry margaritas while dancing to live bands.
- Keep your star employees. Underemployment is another huge issue for Austin right now. Employers need to find a way to attract and retain top talent in order to keep customer satisfaction high. “Good employees are hard to find with this much competition,” said Fernando. “And even the novice employees expect to be paid $10-12 per hour.” He has found that while he can’t compete with what some of the larger chains are paying hourly employees, he can guarantee a set schedule that results in a predictable salary, which is hard to come by in the restaurant industry. “I had an employee leave due to being offered a higher hourly wage that I could not match,” said Fernando. Ends up, the employee returned because even though the rate was higher, he would not be scheduled as many hours as he needed or often be cut on slow shifts which resulted in paychecks that didn’t cover his bills. “He was a good employee who has now become even more loyal and hard working because he knows the grass is not greener on the other side. We are happy to have him back in the family.”
Whether you are a local icon or new to the city, there will always be changes that you must adapt to and overcome in order to be a successful restaurant. As Taco Xpress has proven, the key to a long and healthy run is to be flexible and roll with the changes. If you are ever in the Austin area, the eclectic and eccentric Taco Xpress is worth a visit to sample delicious food and experience a creative atmosphere that definitely lives up to our city’s slogan of “Keep Austin Weird.”