Our Taco House Co-op is seeking to become what might very well be Austin’s first cooperatively owned and run taco restaurant, courtesy of former Tex-Mex institution Tamale House #3 employees Shirley Trevino and Raquel Banda.
Trevino and Banda worked for the iconic Tamale House under beloved owner Robert "Bobby" Vasquez, who died in 2014. The restaurant closed soon after his death, and they turned to each other and asked, “‘What are we going to do?’” Trevino recounted.
After learning about vegan cooperative bakery Red Rabbit (which closed in 2015), they were inspired: “We could create the first worker-owned Tex-Mex cooperative in Austin,” Trevino said. Plus, “being worker-owners [as] minority women stood us out.”
“Our main aim is to honor the legacy of Robert Vasquez and his food,” Trevino said, “and we want to follow in the footsteps of that iconic Tamale House.” Our Taco House already has a proposed home, 5206 Eilers Avenue, just a stone’s throw away from the original Tamale House in the North Loop neighborhood.
Through the Austin Cooperative Business Association, the pair, who currently work at Dan’s Hamburgers, attended and graduated from the cooperative academy in 2016. Now that they have all of their cooperative paperwork done (with help from UT's Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic), they’re looking to secure the address and raise capital.
Rounding out the board of directors are Bryan Lawhorn, Mateo Marron, and Brad Beyer, all of whom were former Tamale House customers.
“The Tamale House is a special place,” said Marron. “The ability to be part of bringing that back in some fashion, that’s not something that comes around all the time.”
“We were all brought there by affordable food and we grew to love the women making the food,” Lawhorn said. “It was the place.”
Lawhorn’s expertise is co-ops. He worked at grocery store Wheatsville Co-op and Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Portland, Oregon, though he acknowledged that Our House takes on a different co-op format.
The co-op model is the key to longevity, according to Lawhorn. “It’s more sustainable,” he said. “After we’re all gone, your business will close down, but a co-op won’t. It’s a living thing.”
Here’s how Our Taco House Co-op will work: There are five members of the board of directors. They hire employees once they have a location that is built out as a restaurant. After a year of employment, which is based on completing a certain number of hours, staffers have the opportunity to join the cooperative by paying $500 for membership shares, of which they have two years to come up with. Going forward, members share Our Taco House’s yearly profits. Employees aren’t required to become members, though, and they can opt out at any time. “I’m hoping it’s going to help women come in and be able to work,” said Trevino.
The team is looking to launch a Kickstarter campaign on Friday, September 1. The exact amount they’re looking to raise depends on contractor estimates, but they’re thinking it’ll be about $350,000.
During the length of the Kickstarter, they are able to rent the future restaurant space, so it can serve as a visible hub for the fundraiser. Luckily, the landlord is leasing it to them for just a dollar for the month of September. Aside from money, people are encouraged to donate equipment and other assorted odds and ends, such as stoves, pots, pans, and tables.
They have not spoken to the Vasquez family about their venture, though they are using recipes they learned during their employment. “They really haven’t questioned it,” said Banda. Everything is squared away thanks to the University of Texas School of Law Clinic, legally speaking.
“Everything’s fresh, everything is homemade, nothing comes out of a can, nothing comes out of a package,” Trevino said. “It’s all fried and cooked right there.” She and Banda have been testing out recipes at home, from rice to hot sauce.
There will be the familiar 17 different breakfast tacos from Tamale House’s era, along with three additional ones (bean and chorizo, potato and chorizo, and potato and sausage), along with meat and crispy tacos. They added more vegetarian options, including a chalupa and assorted plates. There will be huevos rancheros, carne asada, and salads.
All tacos will cost $1.75, or $1.50 during the taco happy hour from 6 to 7 a.m. Nothing will cost more than $6. Customers will be able to order corn or whole-wheat tortillas as well as flour ones, and can build their own tacos.
Banda is bringing back her homemade cupcakes, which the Chronicle called “unexpected (and affordable)” in 2010. She sold the baked goods out of Tamale House #3 for one dollar. Beverages will include cold drinks, like orange juice, milk, sodas, and lemonade, along with tea and coffee.
“Another way they’ll be honoring Robert is by committing to the same kind of aesthetic,” Lawhorn said. “Just keeping it simple. It’s about tacos.” But yes, the future restaurant will feature air conditioning and public restrooms. Aside from those amenities, it just won’t be “designed out,” he said. There will be a small dine-in area, but it will focus mostly on takeout.
Much like Tamale House #3, the spot will have an open kitchen and will accept cash only. “The people you see making your tacos are either employees working their way toward ownership, or the owners [themselves],” Marron said, “which is nice.”
Trevino and Banda have been scoping out Austin’s taco scene, but nothing comes close to what the original Tamale House offered. Of the tacos they tried, they always had the same reaction: “No, this isn’t right,” Trevino. “This is a different taste. This is not what we’re doing.” The two share over 55 years in the food service industry, and they know what they’re doing by bringing back Austin’s favorite tacos.
“It’s all about Robert,” Trevino said, “because if it wasn’t for Robert, we wouldn’t be here.”
Ideally, if all goes according to plan, Our Taco House Co-op will open in May 2018. They are aiming for Robert Vasquez’s birthday month.