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Immigrant turns taco stand into the American dream

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Osiris Hoil, a Mexican immigrant, sat with me at a table on the upper level of his second restaurant, this in the heart of downtown DC. 

“I feel I am living the American dream right now,” he tells me, and no one could disagree.  

Hoil came to America to find a better life. He toiled his way from a dishwasher in Colorado to running a successful taco stand in Rosslyn, and eventually becoming the co-owner and manager of two brick-and-mortar restaurants. 
 
Hoil’s story is an uplifting affirmation of America as a land of opportunity even in scary economic times, but it is also a reminder to policymakers of why to not stifle entrepreneurship. As politicians in D.C. and cities around the country consider regulations cracking down on food trucks and food carts, they would do well to consider the story of District Taco.
 
When Hoil first came to America, he landed a job washing dishes at a bike-themed bar in Denver called the Handle Bar & Grill. As he worked his up to prep-cook and then chef, he took a liking to a young waitress from Northern Virginia named Jennifer, but found the language barrier stifling his courtship efforts. So he taught himself English. “If you want something, you go for it,” he says.
 
At first, Hoil signed up for English courses, but soon he opted for a cheaper route that better fit his schedule. “Every night at 10 o’clock, when my shift ended, I went to the bar and talked to drunk people.” Well-sauced bar patrons proved a patient focus group, as Hoil could ask again and again for the English names of things.
 
Within months, he was flirting with Jennifer in English. One thing lead to another, and soon they were married, and moving back East so they could raise their children near her parents in Fairfax.
 
Hoil took a construction job. But the financial panic and recession of late 2008 dried up much of his employer’s work, and Hoil was out of a job.
 
One night during Hoil’s job hunt, his friend and neighbor Marc Wallace came over for a drink. Hoil, who learned to cook from his mother in Tekax, a small town in Yucatan, Mexico, made some ceviche for Wallace. Wallace loved it and suggested Hoil start a taco stand - Wallace even volunteered to finance it.
 
Concluding “this is my only option now,” Hoil soon had his taco stand up and running in Rosslyn. He made tacos and other Mexican food, selling breakfast and lunch. “I started having regulars,” he says.
 
Hoil’s mother used to cook something different every day, and so Hoil wanted to give his customers some variety. His regulars convinced him to use Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, announce his specials, and take feedback. Hoil’s next investment was an iPhone, and within months, @DistrictTaco was famous on Twitter.
 
Forced to take a hiatus during the snowpocalypse of early 2010, Hoil brought the taco stand back when things thawed. The reception blew him away. His reputation had grown so much in his absence that he was welcomed like a returning hero. He now had 200 customers a day, and had to hire a staff of five.
 
Needing more cooking capacity to meet demand, Hoil rented out a large commercial kitchen in Arlington. Soon, Wallace talked Hoil into turning that kitchen into a restaurant -- the original District Taco restaurant.
 
On the first day, Hoil tells me his Arlington restaurant was overwhelmed. Hoil didn’t have the staff, the logistics, or the supplies to handle the crowd. He learned, adjusted, grew, and finally, this month, opened his downtown restaurant.
 
Last Friday, the line for District Taco was out the door by 11:45, stretching down F Street towards 13th. Hoil said the biggest lesson he’s learned from the downtown restaurant is how much faster a the line needs to move in a business district, as opposed to the suburbs of Arlington.
 
At every step, Hoil has been learning, but he learned the most with his taco stand, which he calls the “best school I ever had.” Early on, he learned to leave eggs out of anything after breakfast. He learned other things about the American palate, such as which of the dishes his mother taught him will or won’t go over well.
 
“If I see 20 people for mole poblano,” Hoil says, referring to the unofficial national dish of Mexico, “but 100 people for carne asada, then forget mole poblano.” He made his menu for his restaurants by measuring demand at his taco stand.
 
The taco stand also gave Hoil and his investor Wallace a chance to start small. Neither man ever would have tried to jump from making ceviche after putting the kids to bed to opening a full-on restaurant.
 
So, as D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray mulls new regulations to govern food trucks, he ought to consider the case of Osiris Hoil and District Taco. Food trucks and carts not only provide choice and variety to D.C. eaters, they also serve as a testing ground and a training ground for tomorrow’s restaurants, who are also tomorrow’s property-tax payers, and community anchors.
 
And you never know if the next all-American tale will be a tale of Mom and Apple Pie or Mami and Carne Asada.
 
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.
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