Our guest this week is Joe Hargrave, founder and CEO of Tacolicious. What started as a pop-up taco stand, then became a mainstay at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco is now a 6 location enterprise across the Bay Area! In our interview with Joe he tells us about the bumpy road that led him to tacos and why Tacolicious will always have a booth that the farmers’ market. If you’re a farmers’ market vendor dreaming of one day opening your own brick-and-mortar, this episode is for you!
The windy road towards tacos
Joe has a pretty extensive resume. In his twenties he bounced between coastal culinary hubs learning the ropes of the restaurant industry. He’s held positions at notable restaurants such as Union Square Cafe and James Beard Award-winning Rose Pistola. He’s also opened and closed his own restaurant, and then like a phoenix rising from its ashes, built a taco dynasty out of a pop-up tent in the heart San Francisco.
One could pin the demise of Joe’s first restaurant Laïola on the it’s location (Chestnut street in the Marina). It would also be easy to blame the “heady” Spanish fare they were serving or the fact that no one really knew how to pronounce the restaurant’s name. However, the great recession definitely had something to do with the inevitable demise of Laïola. “When the economy tanked in 2008, things at Laïola got tough,” says Joe. “I was doing crazy promotions like pink-slip Sundays. Bring your newly unemployed friends to dinner. It was bad, it was scary.”
After watching his revenue dramatically drop 38% and his vendor debt rise to $240,000 seemingly overnight, Joe skipped town to Mexico for some deep thinking and some tacos. Upon his return to San Francisco, he received a call from an organizer at CUESA offering him a booth at one of their evening pop-ups. Joe said yes, under one condition: instead of serving Spanish food, he would serve tacos.
Find your footing at the farmers’ market
After years spent in fine dining scene, Joe didn’t think too hard about his first farmers’ market. “I thought it was going to be fun and easy and relaxing,” recalls Joe “and within 20 minutes there was like a 2 hour line. It was totally bananas and I got my ass handed to me.”
He thought a little harder the following week and showed up in tow with twice as much product, his best cook, and some succulents and candles as table decor. “It was like clockwork. We created a concept that was 100% cooked the night before and then brought and just kept warm,” said Joe. “It was like ok, this is something. This is cool!”
Tacolicious’ success at the CUESA events ushered in a new era for Joe. After a few months he decided to turn his old restaurant into the first brick-and-mortar Tacolicious location and it was an instant hit. “We basically took the idea of a neighborhood pub and took out things like bangers and mash and inserted ingredient-driven Mexican food because that’s what Californians eat and it went berserk!”
Tacolicious: forever at the farmers’ market
Today, Tacolicious has six locations across the Bay Area with plans to eventually expand into Southern California. But no matter how big they get, Joe doesn’t forget Tacolicious’ roots. Almost ten years after he popped their tent for the first time at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, Tacolicious is still serving up tasty bites week in, week out at the Thursday market in San Francisco. “We’ll always be at the farmers’ market,” says Joe, “we started there.”
Joe has even embedded the farmers’ market lifestyle into the corporate training for his staff at Tacolicious. No matter the position, all employees must do their time working the booth at the farmers’ market. Even the 38 salaried managers! “If you don’t understand it, you’re not going to know who we are.”
Where can I listen to Joe’s full episode of Tent Talk?
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Do you have a farmers’ market question you’d like us to answer on air? Got an idea for a future episode topic? Is there someone you think we should interview? Please let us know!