It’s almost Cinco de Mayo which means it’s time for tacos!
After hearing a few locals sing the praises of tacos from a newly opened restaurant nearby, I felt the need to do my due diligence and see for myself what the hype was all about. I dropped in to Closter, New Jersey’s newest Latino food establishment, El Taco Bar one afternoon thinking, maybe this is the place I’ll get some Cinco de Mayo take-out to simplify the prep for my own festivities. Having just opened for business a little over a month ago it was a perfect time to drop in and chat with their chef, Aura Montoya about all the planning that went into starting a new business with a Hispanic flare and the challenges that they’ve faced.
First things first, Aura wanted me to try out their day’s special which was a treat!
Savory and well seasoned birria tacos with a side of extra dipping sauce to dunk my tacos into while we started to chat about the new business. She says that this meat takes 2 days to fully prepare. It utilizes 20 spices for the marinade which the meat then sits in for at least 24 hours. After that, the meat slowly cooks anywhere from 8 to 10 hours. Finally, the meat has to be pulled apart, kitchen prepped, and finally it’s ready to serve. Aura says much of their food prep is very labor and time intensive. Their salsas and guacamole are all freshly prepared and the guacamole is one of their most popular dishes. I hope they planned in advance of Cinco de Mayo, buying enough avocados since this will be their first year celebrating the holiday with customers! Mexican street corn (elote), chicharrón de queso and baja fish tacos are some of their most popular dishes as well. Her business partner, Greg Michelson is on site today and joins us as well to talk about business.
Montoya’s special Birria tacos are so good, marinating for over 24 hours in a 20 spice secret marinade
Aura’s Latino backstory
I asked Aura about her background. She’s originally from Colombia, having studied at culinary school in Argentina and then living there for four years. Argentina is so well known for their quality of beef, and having learned her craft there definitely helped Aura with an understanding about preparing meats with seasonings, spices and marinades that makes the taste so unique. She eventually returned back to Colombia and then came to the United States working as a professional chef in restaurants along her way.
She and her husband are business partners together with Greg Michelson in the business. They’re proud to be Latino owned and managed, also employing a multi-cultural staff of Latinos from Mexican, Guatemalan, and Colombian backgrounds.
Greg’s parents are from Guadalajara and moved to Tijuana right before Greg was born during its boom town era. His father opened a factory selling leather goods. Greg tells me that one of the more famous types of tacos is from Tijuana and when Greg was young, he would go to the factory to visit his father and sweep the floors. His payment was in those tacos and he was more than happy with that arrangement. Greg has such a passion for the flavors of Mexico. but since he doesn’t have the skill to turn those memories of the flavors into food, he’s fortunate to have met Aura who can transform that vision into reality. She can recreate those flavors that transport Greg back to that time and place. Greg values Aura’s culinary skills and work ethic in the continuing success of El Taco Bar. He says the back of the house is just as impeccable as the front of the business and it keeps them organized and able to function at a high level. Greg laughs as he says that Aura is always trying new food concepts and Greg’s job is basically being the taste tester, a job he doesn’t mind.
The seeds of a Hispanic business
Initially the 3 friends tossed around some different ideas of types of restaurant or food business that they could start together. Aura had already been busy with a baking business. They considered starting a small bakery together, but the more they thought about it, they wanted a businesses that people could eat at every day, not just a destination for desserts. Aura has always had a passion for Mexican food, and Greg growing up in San Diego with parents of Mexican heritage had a passion for Mexican food as well, thus the idea for a taco based restaurant started to come together.
Their goal was to have the restaurant up and running before the pandemic started, but the situation put them on a hiatus. During lockdown, they continued to work on new recipes putting together the right flavors and tastes. As soon as they were able to travel, they set off to Tijuana, Mexico to get an idea of what they really wanted El Taco Bar to look and feel like. They wanted the feel of fresh authentic Mexican street tacos, grilled elote, agua frescas, things that are not often seen in this area. They loved the idea of a taco stand.
Fresh made Aguas Frescas are also a specialty at El Taco Bar. From Tamarindo (which I fell in love with) to Jamaica or Horchata.
They also continued to scout for a location. What they found was that most available locations were much larger sit down dining spaces as these were the businesses that were having a difficult time surviving during the pandemic. They were looking for something with lesser square footage and the ability to operate a fast, casual type of dining experience which is what many Hispanic businesses pivoted to as well during this time. Trying to find the right location and not spend too much on a big build out, they kept looking for the “perfect” space. At some point they had to bite the bullet knowing they wouldn’t be able to find exactly what they were looking for, but they did get lucky in finding a very much “blank canvas” space in the form of a Verizon store that had shuttered its doors in a very busy shopping plaza in the heart of Closter, NJ.
They ended up spending more than budgeted for on their build out, but at the end of the day, they felt that lost time in waiting to find a perfect space was more expensive than getting started. The finished restaurant has traditional Talavera tiled tall tables for indoor eating and feels very much like a Mexican food market.
Once the buzz was out about the concept of a fast, casual Mexican based restaurant with fresh quality, authentic food coming to town, they had no resistance in getting things moving. The town was very excited for them to join the businesses in the heart of Closter, NJ with their unique concept restaurant , and they knew they had made the right decision on their location.
El Taco Bar’s signature taco stand look with traditional Talavera tile tabletops
El Taco Bar makes all their tortillas from scratch as well as their salsas. Greg and Aura say these were 2 non-negotiable items for the restaurant – hand made tortillas and fresh salsas. These are part of their brand promise – fresh, high quality and authentic.
They also try to balance the a fair price with the fresh quality concept. Greg says they’re not trying to get rich on this business. They don’t want a customer to visit one time and feel that the food was great, but the prices were expensive. They want a repeat customer enjoying their food and coming back a couple of times a month if not more.
They both expressed that one of their challenges during the pandemic was finding an entire work force. They found their original 6 to 7 employees who they knew they really wanted and gave them a target date for the opening. Unfortunately, the date kept getting pushed back, but those employees waited a month for the opening. 90% of the staff is still with them and they’ve continued to add more.
In the early days of the opening, they were cautious about how much marketing they put out because of the challenges of running the business smoothly and getting everything right. Aura says that their first week was a disaster. The lines were so long and it took over an hour to serve customers. They learned a lot very quickly about having organizational systems in place to help and getting an app to contact customers when their food is ready for pick-up so they can be shopping or grabbing a coffee somewhere else while their food is being prepared. They are now ready to be aggressive in their advertising and spreading the word.
Although they laugh that they luckily haven’t yet run out of tortillas, their other challenge is supply chain issues. Too put it bluntly, it’s a mess. The prices are high and unpredictable and on any given day, certain basic taco necessities like chicken or beef can be out of stock. They try to keep a couple of week’s supply of ingredients for making tortillas on hand. It would be a bit hard to run a taco based restaurant without tortillas. No matter what the supply issues are, they agree that they want to keep their quality standards where they are. If they have to let customers know that something is sold out or not available that day, they’d rather do that than sacrifice quality.
Greg says there’s never a day in their business that is boring. Both Aura and Greg’s energy and excitement about El Taco Bar is really exciting and inspiring.
If you want a sneak peek of customer favorites and pretty much my shopping list for Cinco de Mayo, check out our video right here!