Known for playing tough guys in Hollywood, Danny Trejo is finding success and fulfillment in his latest role—that of a restaurateur.

Tough guy. Rebel. Villain. Hero. Badass. These are roles that actor Danny Trejo has donned in a career spanning nearly four decades. The last one, badass, is also the name of a movie trilogy starring Trejo, that, like the actor himself, has garnered a cult-like fan following.

But for all the personas Trejo has adopted, restaurateur is perhaps the most unexpected—at least until you get him talking about cooking with his mother.

“Me and my mom always joked about opening a restaurant, but my dad was kind of the Mexican Archie Bunker. In the ’50s, women didn’t work. My dad grew up with five brothers, and if your wife worked, you kind of caught hell from the rest of the brothers,” Trejo says.

Childhood flights of fancy aside, becoming a foodservice entrepreneur wasn’t really on Trejo’s radar (by the same token, neither was being a movie star). As a young man in Los Angeles, Trejo fell in with drugs and gangs and was incarcerated more than once. During what would be his last sentence, he got sober and resolved to turn things around. Years later, Trejo helped a screenwriter friend he’d first met in prison by teaching actors how to box for the 1985 film Runaway Train. The director took a liking to Trejo and cast him as the opponent to the lead. The rest, as they say, is history.

His entry into the restaurant world was equally fortuitous—and successful. In just four years, a single restaurant has grown to encompass three concepts and eight units total. Perhaps even more impressive is that the brand has not lost any stores despite dire conditions brought about by COVID-19.

As with most good ideas, the restaurant’s inception started with a casual conversation and steadily evolved into something more tangible. On a movie set, Trejo and producer Ash Shah bonded over their love of food and half-seriously said they should start a restaurant.

Danny Trejo

Trejo has not lost any stores despite dire conditions brought about by COVID-19.

“I wasn’t enjoying the movie business so much anymore, and I love food. I was approaching 50 and knew that if I wanted to do a career change, I’d better do it now,” Shah says. “I happened to be making a movie with Danny at the time, and I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a Mexican place?’ That’s how the idea came about.”

Two films later, Shah brought Trejo a business plan. The first restaurant, Trejo’s Tacos, debuted in a renovated Taco Bell building along L.A.’s bustling La Brea Avenue thoroughfare in early 2016. In the ensuing years, the pair—along with a third partner, Jeff Georgino—have opened four additional fast-casual units (one being in LAX Airport), two full-service cantinas, and one Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts shop.

In early 2020, the team had set out to open three more Trejo’s Tacos in L.A. in the spring and its first out-of-state store in Denver by year-end. Amid the flurry of dine-in bans and restrictions, these plans had to shift. The Colorado outpost and one of the L.A. locations were put on hold indefinitely. At press time, the brand planned to open a new Santa Monica Trejo’s Tacos by year-end and downtown locations of both Trejo’s Tacos and Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts in 2021.

Star power-plus

Starting a restaurant is challenging enough without launching into a different service format before the original store even hits its one-year anniversary, but Trejo’s did just that. Only 10 months after the first restaurant debuted, full-service concept Trejo’s Cantina opened its doors in the heart of Hollywood. While not the default expansion strategy for a fledgling business, it helped differentiate the brand in an oversaturated market with limited real estate options.

“The first cantina was an opportunistic [decision]. It had a larger footprint and was in an area of Hollywood where there are a lot of locals, hotels, nightclubs. We thought we’d go for a full liquor license and with that, do a full-service restaurant and see where that took us,” Georgino says. “That one’s worked very well.” Of the three cofounders, he is the one with the most hospitality experience, albeit more on the entertainment side of the industry through ventures like nightclubs and casino-hotels.

Opening Trejo’s Cantina before a second Trejo’s Tacos unit also doubled the proof of concept automatically; the founders could now pilot two restaurants in tandem.

“I liken the restaurants to the opening of a movie. The restaurants are the movie—that gets the word out about your brand—but you have the ability to do other things as well.”

“In the beginning, we wanted to test concepts and see which one stuck and which one worked better. We were just trying different things,” Shah says, adding that full service could prove trickier in terms of expansion given its larger footprint and more involved operations. “It’s really location-driven. If we were to open one on the Las Vegas Strip, guess what? It’s going to be a cantina. But if we’re on a suburban street, it would probably be a Trejo’s Tacos.”

Critics—and perhaps those with an envious eye—might be quick to downplay the restaurants’ success and rapid expansion, crediting it entirely to Trejo’s fame and not to a genuinely strong operation. They are right in that Trejo’s name and unmistakable visage gives the brand a leg up in capturing consumer attention. After all, star power can go a long way in creating buzz, especially in the early days.

“The media is more prone to want to know about our brand because Danny is involved,” Shah says. “That’s the part of celebrity that does certainly help the brand. The flip side is that a lot of people dismiss it.”

But Trejo’s success isn’t rooted solely in its namesake’s celebrity. After all, novelty wears thin after a while. “Danny always says, ‘I’ll get them in the door; you have to figure out how to keep them there,’” Shah adds.

All three concepts deliver high-quality fare that’s earned praise from industry insiders and customers alike. The rainbow cauliflower taco was among the Los Angeles Times’ top 10 recipes of 2017 (and the only taco dish to make the list); of Trejo’s, the late Anthony Bourdain raved, “It’s just really good,” a quote that appears at the very top of the brand’s website; and last fall, Trejo’s was named the city’s best doughnut by LA Weekly.

“I’ve seen a lot of celebrities open restaurants and think that it will be a hit. Everyone will come for a picture one time, but if the food isn’t good, they’re not coming back,” Trejo says.

The brand’s future prospects and growth strategy have remained largely unchanged in spite of the pandemic and its chilling effect on full service. As of early September, two Trejo’s Tacos and one Trejo’s Cantina were offering outdoor dining, as well as carryout and delivery. Another Trejo’s Tacos unit was also offering off-premises only.

Danny Trejo

“I beat cancer, hepatitis C, and brain surgery—it’s all about diet and attitude,” Trejo says.

Deciding which stores would reopen had less to do with service format and more to do with geography. For example, the cantina at the base of an office building and the fast casual on the University of Southern California’s campus remained shuttered since neither was receiving enough business to justify reopening. At press time, Trejo’s planned to reopen its LAX outpost by year-end.

Still, Shah recognizes that its expansion playbook—for both the full- and limited-service concepts—will change. “Delivery obviously has become a big part of the business right now, and it’s probably going to stay that way for a while,” he says. “Outdoor dining is going to become a very important part of whatever our future plans are.”

One mean menu

Although the taco and cantina concepts don’t bill themselves as health food, they are a far cry from the overly indulgent options found on many Mexican cuisine–based menus. This was an important point for Trejo, who credits his own health to eating habits.

“I don’t eat fast food, I don’t eat junk food, and I hate processed stuff,” Trejo says. “I’ve always tried to eat good. I beat cancer, hepatitis C, and brain surgery—it’s all about diet and attitude. I don’t care what anyone says; diet is everything.”

The brand’s commitment to more wholesome fare also brought a competitive edge. Southern California has no shortage of Mexican restaurants or health-focused brands. It’s also an area that embraces a host of specialty diets. Nevertheless, the team behind Trejo’s saw potential at the intersection of all these trends, and that’s where the group planted its flag.

“There was a strong emphasis on catering to different dietary needs. I think it’s amplified here in Los Angeles,” Shah says. “I grew up as a vegetarian, so I was very sympathetic to not being able to eat when you go out. That was a very big part of our menu planning from the beginning. We had to have options for people who might not want steak, carnitas, or al pastor.”

Vegan options like the roasted cauliflower (with inca corn, pickled onions, and avocado crema), the Mushroom Asado (mushrooms, verde slaw, citrus marinade, and pepita pesto), and Young Jackfruit (with verde slaw, avocado cream, pico de gallo, and tortilla strips) are served as tacos, burritos, and bowls. The gluten-free crowd can opt for corn-based tacos and bowls, the latter of which also wins over paleo diners.

The dishes are as much a reflection of Trejo’s own healthy-eating preferences as they are a tribute to the culinary brains behind them. To build out its menu, the brand consulted with a number of experts, most notably Daniel Mattern, the co-owner and chef of Friends & Family café, whose former stints include the long-revered, now shuttered Campanile, as well as Lucques and AOC Wine Bar.

The cantina menu is nearly identical to the fast-casual one; both feature a mix of entrées, starters like chicharones and street corn, and a dulce de leche cheesecake for dessert. The key point of differentiation—at least in terms of the menu—is the beverage program.

While Trejo’s Tacos serves beer and wine, Trejo’s Cantina has a full liquor license. Beyond its tequila selection—varieties of blanco and reposado all the way to extra añejo and mezcal—the cantinas also serve five different margaritas and cocktails like the Cartel (cucumber vodka, triple sec, watermelon juice, and fresh lime) and the Horchata Fuerte, with rum and cinnamon.

A diversified portfolio

Just as libations ferried Trejo’s from quick service to full, so too did proprietary beverages take the brand into another segment, namely consumer packaged goods (cpg). Last year, as part of a Cinco de Mayo celebration, the company debuted Trejo’s Cerveza. Today the L.A.-brewed Mexican lager is available at more than 100 outlets in California and Arizona.

“The Trejo’s brand was so strong and resonated that it clicked together,” Georgino says. “That was our recipe; we developed it, and now we’re contract-manufacturing it.”

Even with the coronavirus slowing some of that momentum, Shah expects the beer to be available in eight states by the end of the year; lighter and darker versions of the lager are also in the works. As for harder spirits, the team has been tinkering on a tequila recipe. Prior to the pandemic, Trejo’s had figured out how to make and brand it but was still seeking a manufacturing partner. Shah says that in light of current conditions and a shortage of blue agave plants in Mexico, the rollout of this product could be further delayed.

In terms of nonalcoholic goods, Trejo’s already sells its own hot sauce and is developing a salsa to be sold in grocery stores as early as next year pending licenses. The brand also offers a full line of apparel and sundries, from hoodies and baby bibs to face masks and signed prints. Other trendy, up-and-coming chains and independents have employed a similar strategy—just look at Torchy’s Tacos—and with a name and face as celebrated as Trejo’s, it’s a no-brainer. The brand’s first-ever cookbook, Trejo’s Tacos: Recipes and Stories from L.A., made its debut in late April.

Outreach, particularly face-to-face contact, has been a cornerstone of the brand since day one. Even as recently as February, Trejo himself attended the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami to once again host Tacos After Dark, a late-night event serving tacos, beachside snacks, tequila shots, and wine. The company had also partnered with Live Nation to bring a trio of its tacos to 45 stadiums across the U.S.

But this strategy has been halted out of necessity. Back in February, Shah remarked how consumers craved experiential dining. “I liken the restaurants to the opening of a movie. The restaurants are the movie—that gets the word out about your brand—but you have the ability to do other things as well,” he had said. Months later, Shah, like the rest of the industry, couldn’t help but wonder whether that tenet would hold true in the future. “There’s no crystal ball. I don’t know what’s going to happen two years from now, if people are going to be comfortable going back to their old lives. It’s just kind of a wait-and-see for us, and for most people,” he says.

The Name of the Food Game

Danny Trejo isn’t the first celebrity to dive into the restaurant world. Here are some other notable figures who’ve ventured into foodservice, lending their fame—and often their names—to the establishments.

Jimmy Buffet

Love or hate his beachy croons, Jimmy Buffet is an icon commanding a legion of “Parrothead” fans as well as dozens of restaurants. Although the locations don’t bear Buffet’s name, it’s hard to mistake Margaritaville or Cheeseburger in Paradise for anyone else.

Michael Jordan

The legendary basketball player debuted Michael Jordan’s Steak House on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile in 1998. The restaurant now has casino locations in Connecticut and Washington.

Francis Ford Coppola

The Oscar-winning director may be as passionate about food and beverage as he is about films. In addition to his own vineyard and wine label, Coppola also has two restaurants: Cafe Zoetrope in San Francisco and RUSTIC, which is located on-site at Coppola Winery in Northern California.

Gloria Estefan

Music power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan opened fine-dining Larios in Miami Beach nearly 30 years ago. Larios has been a lasting success, prompting the two to open another restaurant, Estefan Kitchen, in Orlando, Florida.

Jon Bon Jovi

The rock star subtly incorporated his initials into the volunteer-run, community-first JBJ Soul Kitchen with two locations in New Jersey.

Cast and crew

For all the marketing prowess Trejo’s leadership had brought to the table, the company still needed to fill certain gaps, first on the culinary side but then also with respect to day-to-day operations and employee management. So in 2017, it tapped Karla Moreno, who already had a decade’s worth of restaurant experience. She started as director of training and staff development and now serves as director of people operations.

While studying to be a teacher, Moreno grew enamored with her side job as a server at California Pizza Kitchen. She was able to parlay her education background and become a training manager at CPK. She later moved to Real Mex Restaurants, whose collection of concepts includes Chevy’s Fresh Mex and El Torito, first as a training manager and later as the director of training. Coming from the corporate chain world, Moreno had the rare opportunity to help build Trejo’s operations, training, and employee programs from the ground up.

“With Trejo’s, I looked at it as a startup because they didn’t really have a lot of systems in place. When I joined the company there were two locations, and they wanted to expand. They had the marketing knowledge; they just needed a little bit of help with system implementation, training, and operations,” Moreno says.

Like many of today’s best restaurants, Trejo’s prioritizes personality over experience in hiring. Moreno describes the company culture as fun and inviting. Whether prospective employees are in the restaurant industry for a season or for life, the most important criterion is that they are happy people who enjoy taking care of guests.

“A lot of our managers have a servant’s heart and genuinely like helping people,” Moreno says. “We call it the people industry, not the food industry, because you’re dealing with people every day.”

Like Trejo’s real estate strategy, human resources benefits from having more than one concept in its arsenal. For example, if an applicant is interested in working at the cantinas but has little to no restaurant experience, the company can (provided they have openings) start the employee at one of the limited-service locations. After learning the ropes at the fast casual and undergoing additional training, they can transfer to full service. In terms of upward mobility, Moreno says that about 70 percent of Trejo’s managers started as cashiers before going into the shift-lead program.

This hands-on approach to hiring and training is both a point of pride for the company as well as a challenge in the face of expansions. With eight units, it’s relatively simple to maintain leadership between corporate leadership and staff on the front lines. But when the store count grows, it becomes infinitely more difficult—one of many reasons Trejo’s is gun-shy when it comes to growth via franchising.

“I hire 97 percent of the people in the company, from dishwashers on up. And I do that so we can establish the culture that we want,” Georgino says. “It’s hard to keep that up beyond maybe a couple more restaurants, but for right now we have a tight fist on the people portion of our business.”

A servant’s heart

There’s also some resistance to big growth on a more personal level. Before COVID-19, Trejo delighted in visiting each restaurant at least once a week, provided he wasn’t traveling or filming in a remote location. The brand’s partnership with Southwest Airlines made the prospect of going beyond L.A. a bit easier. Not only did the collaboration bring an LAX unit to the airline’s terminal, but it also helped Trejo and the team home in on potential markets. Back in February, Trejo pointed to Southwest’s recent expansion of its service to Hawaii as a pro for opening a location on the islands.

“I want to expand, but not to the point that it loses that magic. I won’t open something that I can’t go to hang out at,” Trejo said in February. “What I like about seeing fans in restaurants is that it’s like welcoming them to my house. There’s time to take pictures; I’m not running through an airport. … In the restaurant, I get to chat with them, to see their kids.”

And at the end of the day, that is one thing that separates Trejo from other Hollywood heavy hitters; he’s not one to slap his name on something without nurturing it. Trejo may not be manning the cash register or blending the house-made horchata, but he is a front-of-house hero who knows how to work the crowd—and inspire his own team.

“He will go around and shake everyone’s hand, pet every single dog that’s in the restaurant, kiss babies, and walk around and talk to employees. He’s our No. 1 example of what it means to take care of the guests. I think that translates over to our employees because he does it in his own way,” Moreno says. “He might not be involved in the operations per se, but when it comes to taking care of people, he truly has a servant’s heart.”

Feature, Leader Insights