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.