Review: Family-owned joint Tacomio fought tooth and nail to survive COVID-19. Now, it faces an unwanted neighbour

Tacos and a salad bowl to go from Tacomio in North Vancouver on December 15.Jackie Dives / The Balloon and the Mail

Tacomio in North Vancouver is lit by signs that use an ornate skull or Mexican skull as a logo. But the bronze camel outside the restaurant’s front door might be more symbolic of his current plight.

The Lady, a life-size sculpture by artist Myfanwy MacLeod, pays homage to a strange footnote in British Columbia history, circa 1862, when enterprising prospectors imported two dozen camels to collect supplies on the treacherously steep and narrow Cariboo Trail. The short-lived experiment was an epic failure, in part because the cranky camels smelled so bad that the other pack animals would startle and bolt, many of which fell and died.

Today, The Lady look out over Lonsdale Avenue, where a new Chipotle Mexican Grill will soon open as the ground-floor anchor tenant of a specially designed rental apartment building owned by Hollyburn Properties.

Tacomio is a small family business that fought tooth and nail to survive the pandemic – its North Vancouver location was closed for eight months – and is still struggling.

Chipotle, the highest grossing casual fast food restaurant chain in the United States, grew during the pandemic and is now aggressively expanding into Canada.

The two restaurants on the opposite corners of 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue will offer menus that are nearly identical.

Hollyburn Properties, which is apparently doing a good thing by bringing much-needed rental housing to market, was allegedly burned by Starbucks, the original tenant, when it withdrew its Canadian presence.

Central Lonsdale is a rapidly densifying neighborhood that deserves a healthy mix of retail stores and restaurants, not a David vs. Goliath showdown at one of its major intersections.

The Lady It might have sparked controversy when it was unveiled in 2017, but public art has now earned its place and taken on new meaning. Because however you look at it, this situation sucks.

“I understand that it is a free market and I know that Chipotle is expanding, but it is a little strange that they are opening in front of us,” says Tacomio owner Fhernando Llanas by phone. “It is such a large corporation. They could kill us. “

Mr. Llanas, a former Vancouver Club kitchen aide, opened his first Tacomio in Gastown in 2015, offering high-quality tacos, burritos, nachos and salad bowls made with authentic Mexican flavors, handmade tortillas and locally sourced protein.

They moved to the University of British Columbia four years later, followed by a commissary kitchen with a takeout window in Strathcona and North Vancouver.

Tacomio sells pantry items like rice, beans, and hot sauce.Jackie Dives / The Balloon and the Mail

Fast and informal business is a family affair. Mr. Llanas’s mother works in the kitchen and tries all the new recipes. His sister takes pictures for the website and social media; her fiancé is a silent partner.

When the pandemic struck, they closed the UBC and North Vancouver locations, gave $ 70,000 worth of perishables to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, and moved to take-out from the Strathcona kitchen.

They were one of the first taco shops to offer family-style taco kits, which travel better, are generously sized, and very affordable (initially $ 25 for two).

To give customers peace of mind, they invested in new packaging with tamper-evident security seals. Each take-out order comes with a hand-signed thank you note.

To make ends meet, they began selling bottled spices, homemade sauces, and other specialty grocery items.

Like many restaurants, they are still understaffed. “We are currently training several new crew members. … Please be kind and patient, ”reads a notice in the front window of the North Vancouver restaurant, where customers apparently have shorter wicks and more complaints.

And to generate more business, they launched a series of new and trendy dishes: birria tacos with cheese skirt with a rich consommé, premium ribeye roast, and huge and truly fabulous portions of wild Pacific cod battered with beer.

The new items, available only in the Strathcona kitchen, have been wildly popular. And when the North Vancouver store reopened (still just to go) they considered installing a new HVAC system to accommodate a fryer and larger kitchen line.

Tacomio’s owner, Fhernando Llannas, at his North Vancouver location.Jackie Dives / The Balloon and the Mail

Says Mr. Llanas: “We’d love to have a similar menu in North Vancouver, but the ventilation will cost $ 150,000 and if we don’t survive, well … maybe we’ll wait a few months for Chipotle to open and see what happens.”

Chipotle, while now a sharp-toothed behemoth with nearly 3,000 locations, has a similar origin story. The Denver-based company was founded as a single restaurant near a university by a fine-dining chef, Steve Ells, who wanted to create better tacos with whole foods and fresh ingredients.

Despite an unfortunate series of food poisoning outbreaks, Chipotle is widely considered a good corporate citizen and excellent employer supporting sustainable farmers and offering debt-free titles through its best-in-class benefits program.

Before the pandemic, the company was heavily leaning towards digital innovations, including Chipotlanes for mobile ordering self-service, which served very well when the indoor dining room was put on hiatus. In the fourth quarter of 2020, digital sales grew 177%, total revenue increased 11.6% to $ 1.6 billion, and the company opened 61 new restaurants.

Some reports characterized the growth as opportunistic profit. “Fast food giants like Dunkin ‘and Chipotle are using the restaurant apocalypse as an opportunity to’ swallow ‘independent restaurants struggling to survive the pandemic,” a Business Insider headline reads.

When asked about his rationale for opening a new Canadian restaurant so close to a small and eerily similar local competitor, Anat Davidzon, Canada Managing Director for Chipotle, sent a nondescript and boilerplate reply:

“Given the growing popularity of real Chipotle food in Canada, we believe there is great growth opportunity in this market. In keeping with our mission to nurture a better world, we are excited to bring our passion for community and the environment, along with our commitment to fresh, responsibly sourced food with integrity to the Vancouver community … “

Hollyburn Properties CEO David Sander declined to comment.

Most development companies have internal bylaws that prevent cannibalization of other tenants. But when it comes to competition across the street, owners are free to do what they want.

Although some forward-thinking cities, like San Francisco, have adopted policies to limit “formula retailing” (ie, large chains) in neighborhood business districts, there are no such restrictions here.

Still, “there are your market developers and then there are your smart developers,” says Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in BC, who addressed (but did not support) the San Francisco model in a recent Small Business Study Retail Business Report for the City of Vancouver.

“Smart developers have a sense of curation and community building,” he says, pointing to Westbank’s recent alliance with Kitchen Table Group and the small independent restaurants (Linh Café, Autostrada, Ça Marche Crêperie) in Vancouver House.

Yan does not see Tacomio’s situation as desperate.

Remember when Starbucks opened on Commercial Drive? Everyone thought that it would be the Death Star that would end the Italian coffee culture. I don’t remember a single one of those little cafes closing. If anything, we saw an expansion.

“My money is in Tacomio. I bet it will hold its own. “

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