It was never Danny Trejo’s goal to open a chain of Mexican restaurants, but when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped at the chance. Now with only two other partners, he has a string of Trejo’s Tacos, Cantinas and Coffee & Donuts shops around Los Angeles, with more cities targeted for 2019.
— Lesley Balla
Celebrity-backed restaurants are nothing new, but none are as obvious about it as Danny Trejo’s string of Mexican taquerias and donut shops, Trejo’s Tacos, in Los Angeles. It’s not just by name — his familiar face is the logo of the brand on everything from signage to housemade hot sauces on every table. But unlike behind-the-scenes investors, Trejo is as hands-on as his acting schedule allows, from checking in on the different Southern California locations to handing out 1,200 free tacos during Super Bowl LIII festivities in Atlanta.
“I taste everything offered in the restaurant,” he said. “Now and then I send friends of mine in to report on stuff, and I’ve never gotten a bad report. So I know the employees are on their game. People ask what’s my secret, and I say it’s just good food. Nobody will come back for bad food.”
Trejo, whose real-life positive attitude and gracious demeanor is a far cry from the hardened bad guy he portrays on the big and small screen, is a huge part of the brand’s success. With only two other partners, new restaurateurs Ash Shah and Jeff Georgino, the concept has grown from one small taqueria to an emerging chain, with more opening this year, and plans for out-of-state operations and more Trejo’s-branded products on the horizon.
Fusing a Path
The idea behind the restaurant came about organically. Shah and Georgino were former roommates at the University of Southern California, one heading into the film industry, and the other helping launch clubs for Playboy Enterprises. When both were looking for new ventures outside of their respective paths, opening a restaurant always seemed to be a part of the conversation. Cut to Shah bonding with Trejo over food while working on a film together; they also found themselves discussing opening a restaurant.
“I thought, we have one of the most famous Mexican people in the country here, and Mexican food is something you can eat multiple times a week. This makes sense,” Shah said. “Danny loves food. He has a story about how his mom wanted to open a restaurant, that it was one of her dreams and it never happened. So we made it happen.”
The first Trejo’s Tacos location opened in March 2016 along a busy stretch of La Brea Avenue. The former Taco Bell location sat empty for many years, and a lot of upgrades were required to bring it to life, which led to unexpected delays. This slowed down Trejo’s initial growth initiatives — the partners all thought big out of the gate looking to open multiple units in one year — but they eventually added a truck, then Trejo’s Cantinas in Hollywood and Pasadena, stands at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and near USC, and a Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts.
A third cantina, which recently opened just outside of LA, combines all the concepts — tacos, coffee, donuts, and cocktails — under one roof. The next location, coming this April, will feel more like a Mexican beach shack at the historic Original Farmers Market, and then a downtown Los Angeles location is in the works for later this year. Eventually the group wants to go beyond California, with sights set on Houston, Dallas, or Denver for the future.
“Danny as a brand gives us an edge,” Georgino said. “He’s a beacon that enables us to showcase our food and hospitality. The branding is awesome, but our food, service, and guest experience gives us staying power and the ability to grow.”
Shah agrees that with Trejo there’s an automatic talking point built into the enterprise, but a successful restaurant still has to have good food and be unique. “There have been so many bad celebrity restaurants that people assume it will be bad,” he said. “We want to be better than the other guys. We just put our spin on it.”
The chain’s menus are ambitious, especially in a city like Los Angeles where tacos are available on just about every corner. The steak asada has pepita pepita pesto; the carnitas pineapple and fermented hot sauce; and fried fish tacos have a pineapple slaw. But there’s also chicken tikka tacos, blackened salmon, and vegan and vegetarian options made with jackfruit, mushrooms or cauliflower. Like reading the room at a dinner party, things skew healthy (or at least seem to be) for the local crowd. The hope is these untraditional offerings will land well in other markets.
“When we first started, we had some wildly ambitious things like mung bean quesadillas and cauliflower tortillas,” Shah said. “But we realized we needed everything to be consistent across the board. It certainly cost us a lot more money in the beginning from mistakes. But it also helped because we tried things that maybe we wouldn’t have if we had more experience.”
With that said, expansion into other states could see some regional tweaks, like more flour-based tortilla items in Texas. “We won’t know until we actually get there,” Shah added.
Tacos, Cerveza and the Future
Growth for the Trejo’s brand is still in the planning stages. Shah and Georgino admit they’re still figuring out some infrastructure, that there’s always menu planning and tweaking, and training for consistency. Building and permitting delays were hard lessons in Los Angeles, as was dealing with a competitive and shrinking labor pool. The group dreamed big at the offset, even hiring and training multiple managers at the same time with the expectation they’d go on to manage other outposts in the future.
“We’re hoping outside of LA it becomes a little easier,” Shah said. “It’s training and retention, really. To find good people, we use every recruiting tool out there, and we’re always interviewing, training, and overstaffing. We’re constantly promoting from within, and if people are good, we’ll accelerate their development and give them more responsibilities.”
“We can find the real estate, develop the recipes, and implement policies and procedures, but finding the right people with the skills and passion to execute on a consistent basis is always the challenge,” Georgino added. “For me, it’s both the hardest and most rewarding part of the business.”
In addition to more locations, the group plans to bring more Trejo’s-branded products to market. Along with hot sauce, coffee beans, and an endless amount of t-shirts, hats and other swag with Danny Trejo’s face planted on them, there are talks in getting a Trejo’s beer on grocery store shelves. “Most likely our approach to retail will be on a brand licensing basis, which would enable us to expand to a wider market at a faster pace,” Georgino said.
While Trejo happily gets involved with marketing initiatives as needed, when it comes to the real operations of the restaurant business, he leaves it to the professionals. “Being an actor and well-known, I have to get my ego out of the way,” he added. “To be successful you have to surround yourself with successful people. This is their business, and I just follow their lead. I know it’s not my genre. If they want to learn how to act, I’ll teach them.”