At face value, Condado Tacos’ road from a single unit in Columbus, Ohio, to a rapidly growing, private equity–backed all-star might seem straightforward, something that can be dissected and replicated by aspiring operators. But that simple narrative glosses over the nuances that make the brand special, from a somewhat shaky start to organic expansion to its current identity as an increasingly competitive player in the post-COVID landscape.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Condado Tacos still managed to bolster its system with five new restaurants. Last year, it opened nine stores, and the company has set a goal of 10–12 for 2022. It’s an impressive feat in a strong, stable market but nearly unheard of in present circumstances when more than 100,000 restaurants have permanently closed and so many others are still struggling to hold on.
The secret to Condado Tacos’ success isn’t any single aspect of the business but instead so many parts working in concert. And it’s something that attracted CEO Chris Artinian, even before the concept hit its stride.
A 30-plus-year industry veteran, Artinian spent 17 years at Morton’s Steakhouse, even leading the brand as CEO and president before its acquisition by Landry’s in 2012. After stints at Smokey Bones and TooJay’s Deli, Artinian left the restaurant world in 2017 to join private equity firm The Beekman Group. But he kept his ear to the ground, and it wasn’t long before Condado Tacos captured his attention.
“I fell in love with the culture, the brand, the folks—Joe Kahn, our founder; Johnny Zela, our COO,” Artinian says. “I decided to return to my passion of leading a restaurant brand because of the strong culture and the vibrancy of this brand.”
The feeling was mutual. Founder and then-CEO Joe Kahn had his misgivings about private equity. But at the suggestion of his CFO David Conley, he attended a conference, during which he met with a number of venture capitalists, including Artinian.
“First guy that walked through the door: Chris Artinian. I kid you not. He walked in, and we made this connection. He only had half an hour, but I walked away from there going, ‘Maybe there is something to this private equity,’” Kahn says. “If I can get the ex-CEO of Morton’s—I loved that brand back in the day; their culture was up there with ours—maybe I would consider it.”
Artinian led the diligence in the transaction, which kept Kahn as the majority stakeholder. In a restructuring effort, Artinian was installed as the new CEO while Kahn took on the role of chief innovation officer, which he admits, freed him up to do what he enjoys most: generate new ideas, research the market, and ensure the culture stays strong.
“Now my time is focused on the innovation. And I’m [Artinian’s] sounding board,” he says. “I enjoy it so much. We’re so simpatico on what we want, and he gets it.”
Artinian says that even before his arrival, Condado Tacos had the perfect marriage of minds: Kahn brought the creativity while Zela executed that vision. Now as a trifecta, Artinian brings the experience and skill to transform a regional brand into a national player.
Making the perfect crema
For all Condado Tacos has going for it, the concept has hit some bumps along the way. Back when the first location debuted in 2014, Kahn recalls having to shut down within the first six weeks because he couldn’t execute the food and service with the quality and consistency he expected. Describing himself as maniacal in those early stages, Kahn says he once threw out seven gallons worth of scratch-made crema because it wasn’t up to standards. That meticulous nature was baked into the brand from the get-go.
By about month eight, Condado Tacos was doing $28,000–$40,000 weekly, but it would soon more than double those volumes. Zela, who originally worked as a part-time bartender, stepped into operations, and within months, sales jumped close to $100,000 per week.
Zela’s original role at Condado Tacos belied a deep well of knowledge and experience. Prior to moving to Columbus, he opened and ran his own restaurant in Chicago’s bustling Lincoln Park neighborhood. Zela says he “made every mistake under the sun,” but they were lessons that he would eventually take with him to Condado.
“I became friends with [Kahn] and he used to confide in me. Any type of operational issues or challenges he would have, he’d give me a call and we kind of built that relationship,” Zela says. “As the business took off, he was like, ‘I really need a director of operations.’ I thought about it for a long time, … and it was the best decision I ever made.”
When Kahn first started Condado Tacos, he had no aspirations of turning it into a multiunit enterprise—let alone pursuing a national scale. But when the original location in Columbus’s trendy Short North neighborhood started pulling in six figures weekly and finding itself with 85-table waits, the plans changed. Kahn even recalls one rainy day in particular when the lines still managed to spill out onto the sidewalk.
“As soon as we saw that, we knew we had something special,” he says. “It’s a crazy story, but it’s a testament to our culture and what we stand for. We want something craveable that you can afford. The affordability is there, the value’s there—[all] in a great, exciting environment.”
Store No. 2 debuted before the original hit its two-year anniversary, and it wasn’t long before more followed. Before The Beekman Group entered the picture, the concept was averaging about six openings per year.
True to the emerging category of NextGen Casual concepts, Condado Tacos has an eye on growth—but never at the expense of quality and culture. Kahn’s foodservice career stretches back to his days as a busboy at Sizzler. He was immediately hooked and would go on to other restaurants, working every position from line cook and server to bartender and general manager. During those years, his specialty was fine dining. The food was great, but he bristled at the formality.
“To me, it just felt so stuffy. You wear the same thing every day. I never felt good about myself, that I was an individual,” he says. Those years helped elucidate the direction he would eventually take as an entrepreneur. “What I did was I took everything that I had loved about the business and then excluded everything I didn’t like,” he adds.
Kahn briefly served as a partner at Barrio Tacos out of Cleveland before starting his own joint. Originally conceived as a bar that served tacos, the blueprint evolved to include more seating, turning it into a restaurant with a strong bar business (more than a third of sales come via alcohol). Kahn also took inspiration from another build-your-own concept, one that has shaken up the fast-casual world.
“I loved what Chipotle was doing with build-your-own. And then there were a couple places in Chicago and other places that did tacos, but they were more street tacos, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I want more Southwest Tex-Mex with the authentic Oaxacan flavors and Mexican flavors,’” Kahn says.
He also wanted the restaurant to be full service, not fast casual. And in that regard, Condado Tacos remains something of an outlier in the build-your-own world, where the vast majority of brands are limited service.
For Artinian, Condado hits the sweet spot between convenience and ambiance. While the average visit is 44 minutes, he says, patrons can get in and out faster or choose to linger over their meal and drinks for a few hours. This build-your-own-meal and choose-your-own-timeline approach keeps pace with consumers’ increasingly frenetic lifestyles.
“The need for speed and convenience has become really paramount, but I think what is still incredibly important is carving out an experience,” Artinian says. “What we do at Condado is marry it all together because we’re at this price point that is casual dining, but it’s full service. … We are the perfect hybrid model.”
And because the dine-in experience—even short visits—are so integral to the brand, great care is put into striking the right ambiance. All Condado locations exude the same funky, urban feel but the specifics vary from site to site. That’s because the NextGen Casual concept taps local graffiti artists to fill the walls of each new restaurant.
The sense of individual expression permeates the culture at Condado Tacos. It’s cultivated an atmosphere where guests can just as easily arrive in athleisure wear as work attire—and that attitude extends to the staff. The brand doesn’t require uniforms and prefers its employees to dress in a way that is authentic to them. Kahn was especially adamant about this given his time in fine dining where precisely replicated uniforms were de rigueur.
Come as you are
The lack of uniforms is just one facet of Condado’s evolved approach to employee engagement. And if you ask Artinian, Kahn, or Zela, they’ll say culture is just as much a differentiator as the brand’s quality and convenience.
“Really the focus is on our employees. I know it’s not sexy [to say], but we treat our people so well. Now you’re hearing it all over the industry: People are leaving left and right, and you can’t hire them and all this stuff. Knock on wood, we’re doing well because of our culture,” Kahn says. “We value every employee. We give them all the benefits we can possibly give them, and as we grow, we get more and more.”
Since the restaurant’s beginning and long before the current push for higher wages, Condado was paying back-of-house employees $18–$20 per hour. Kahn says general managers now make $120,000-plus and kitchen managers are in the $80,000–$90,000 range.
Still, Artinian is quick to point out that while the brand offers competitive wages, the strength of its culture eclipses pay. Communication, employee appreciation and recognition, and added benefits are all part of building and maintaining a strong, loyal workforce.
During the pandemic, communication was even more critical. Condado increased the frequency of its check-ins with managers and staff for everything from what was happening at the stores on the ground level to larger issues like supply chain gridlocks. That communication worked both ways; employees were encouraged to share not only updates on their stores but also their input and COVID-related concerns.
“In that communication, we also learned that it was really important that we gave comfort to our teams, that this is going to be a safe environment, whether it be the health checks, the commitment to sanitation, the commitment to ensuring that people get tested if there’s any sort of symptoms,” Artinian says.
He adds that it was important employees knew there would be no penalty if they had symptoms and needed to miss work. The brand also compensated workers for the days they went to get tested, all with the understanding that they would return only once they had recovered and felt safe doing so.
Like communication, Condado Tacos doubled down on employee recognition during the pandemic.
“What can we do to continue to validate why Condado is a great place to work? I mentioned the celebration of individuality and ‘come as you are,’ but today we have folks who have carried us through very difficult times,” Artinian says. “We have stepped up our game in ensuring that we’re very conscious of employee recognition.”
The company is also exploring nontraditional benefits. Employee surveys help leadership home in on the areas that could be the most impactful. For example, when daycares closed in the early days of COVID, that issue became top-of-mind for many team members. It’s one possible benefit—along with education opportunities and more flexible hours—the company is exploring.
Internal promotions are also a big focus at Condado Tacos, which has the double benefit of offering employees opportunities to grow and streamlining the brand’s expansion process.
“We opened up nine stores [last] year and will hopefully open up 11 stores [this] year and maybe 15 next year. But the only way we could do that is by focusing on the development of our people,” says Zela, who himself is a prime example of this upward mobility. “It seems like our best managers are those who have come up within the company—the line cooks that turn into kitchen managers or even if they work their way up from a line cook and a barback and a bartender. … We have a lot of success stories that way. I’m not the only success story in the company.”
Opportunities for advancement go a long way toward retention and also translate into a stronger customer experience since employees are more likely to be invested in their own performance and the success of the brand. The effect is compounded by a training program and work culture that emphasize teamwork and shared responsibility. For example, if a host is seating guests and a server happens to see a new party waiting at the front, he might jump in and seat the party rather than waiting for the host to return. Examples like this lead to a more flexible and efficient operation.
“We really preach teamwork and in our stores; everyone will have to work together. If we hire someone new and they are not a good team player, 99.9 percent of the time they’re not going to make it,” Zela says.
Ahead of the game
While Condado Tacos is wholeheartedly committed to the people side of its enterprise, it has also embraced technology as a tool to hasten throughput, ensure accuracy, and enhance the overall experience for both staff and guests. Zela says that even though Toast handheld POS devices are ubiquitous now, Condado was one of the early adopters; it has been using the technology for about five years.
The brand also launched its own app last August. This coincided with the introduction of a loyalty program featuring three tiers, each with its own perks, from free chips and salsa each month to special members-only promotions to branded swag.
The app is also outfitted for digital ordering, pickup, delivery and features colors and graphics that align with its in-store style. The brand sees a lot of white space as far as the platform’s capabilities are concerned.
“We have some really interesting things coming for the app, … whether it be a little bit of artificial intelligence and making some of our artwork come alive or some gaming and things like that. So we are knee-deep in the tech development,” Artinian says. “It’s something that’s going to be a living and breathing piece of the Condado experience that we can share with our guests.”
In addition to tech developments, the company is also constantly innovating on the F&B side thanks to monthly LTOs. Condado Tacos hangs its hat on tacos, queso, guacamole, and margaritas. Guests can choose from one of nearly 20 tacos, like the Sweet Heart (brisket, smoked cheddar, cilantro, onion, pineapple salsa, habanero-mango sauce, and chipotle honey) or the Dutch Dragon (guacamole, roasted portobellos, tomatoes, jicama and cabbage slaw, pickled jalapeños, corn salsa, and salsa verde).
Still, these signature options hardly overshadow the build-your-own route. Proteins range from house-made chorizo and cilantro-lime steak to Thai Chili Tofu and Korean BBQ Pulled Jackfruit. The menu also includes seven fresh-made sauces like the garlicky Mexican Chimichurri, the creamy Cilantro-Lime Aioli, and the extra-spicy Dirty Sauce.
The tacos themselves are available as soft or hardshell with the latter having two additional flavor options, the Kewl Ranch and the spicy Firecracker. Condado Tacos also offers double deckers in which flour and hardshell are bound together with a layer of queso, guacamole, sour cream, refried beans, or other filler ingredient.
Kahn recalls that his father requested a double decker on opening day (the combo shell is perhaps best known as an offering at Taco Bell). He and the rest of the team ended up making their own versions and immediately realized the dish deserved a permanent spot on the Condado menu.
“We were like, this texture is unreal. So over the next few days, I changed everything [and] added a bunch of double deckers,” Kahn says. “Nobody else is doing the freshness and the cleanness of what we’re doing. It’s really special for us. The double deckers are just amazing.”
The beverage menu is made of nearly a dozen different variations of margaritas. Some, like the house variety and Gran Classico, are familiar classics. The specialties, however, break the mold, with concoctions like the Chipotle Sour, with reposado tequila, mezcal, orange liqueur, chipotle sour purée, mint, agave, and lime. Many of the drinks feature house-made purées.
In 2022, guests can expect to find a new habanero apple margarita with mango basil purée, as well as a cocktail that combines lychee, rosewater, jalapeño, and ginger. The food menu will also welcome LTOs including bacon-refried dips and a variety of new hardshells in flavors like double cheesy, barbecue, and Asian chili.
Maintaining the original vision
With fresh menu offerings and plenty in the pipeline, the year ahead looks bright for Condado Tacos, which is also benefiting from a tailwind. Artininan says that in Q4 of 2021, same-store sales were trending 18.9 percent compared to the same, pre-pandemic quarter in 2019.
“It’s nuts,” Artinian says. “You see some [quick-service] numbers like that, but the beauty of Condado is that we are a full-service restaurant that has the speed of a fast casual or even faster. That marriage has proven to be a winner and that’s what’s really driven our incremental growth.”
Last year also marked entry into two new states with Nashville, Tennessee, and Lexington, Kentucky, outposts. The brand has designs on Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2022, as well as the greater mid-Atlantic and Southeast corridors.
Even as it saturates existing markets like Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis, Condado has plenty of runway ahead. The challenge now is to keep expansion at a manageable level, or as Artinian puts it, “We want to stay on top of our skis.”
Looking back on the past year or so, the CEO says it’s difficult to point to any one thing as the key to success, though he’s quick to credit Kahn’s vision and Zela’s operational prowess in forging a strong foundation. Artinian has been brought into the fold, but he still respects the dynamics that attracted him to the brand in the first place.
So in a way, the CEO’s role isn’t just that of growth guru, but also of caretaker. Condado Tacos has a secret sauce, and he’s not about to let it be diluted.
“A lot of brands lose their way because they forget where they started. You get somewhere and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute; who was here? Who understands the original vision?’” he says. “The original vision is still very, very prevalent here. And the energy behind it, I think, really makes that difference.”