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.