Mike Rypka fell in love with the food business when he was in his teens, working his first job at Popeyes and several other foodservice jobs after that. His passion for cooking led him down a chef’s rabbit hole, from culinary school at Johnson & Wales’ Miami campus to corporate chef gigs with major organizations in Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C.
His passion for bold flavors and his resume cooking for national corporations came to a head in Austin, Texas, in 2006, when he launched Torchy’s Tacos out of an old barbecue trailer on a piece of land he called the trailer park. The company has since grown to more than 60 fast-casual locations serving Texas-style tacos in a laid-back setting.
Rypka spoke about his path to fast-casual success on a recent episode of QSR’s podcast, “Fast Forward.”
Though Rypka learned his way around a kitchen from culinary school, he learned his way around people from the corporate world. He credits his experience as chef of the World Bank cafeteria in D.C. as his PhD equivalent when it came to real-world training.
“I got thrown to the wolves and had to figure it out,” Rypka says, noting that he was 22 when he was named head chef of the World Bank’s foodservice operations. “Luckily, through hard work and determination and knowing how to relate to people and develop people, I ended up being successful coming out of that.”
Rypka’s World Bank accomplishment paved the way for other big-name clients, including MTV, Disney, Interscope Records, and Enron. Eventually, he relocated to Austin, where, after stints with Dell and Chuy’s, he decided to give his own restaurant project a go, opening the first Torchy’s in 2006.
Leading a diverse array of teams from an early age taught Rypka an important lesson: Always hire people who are better than you. “Let them flourish, let them be successful. Let them take the wheels off and run with it,” Rypka says.
Tricks of the trailer
In 2006, Rypka opened Torchy’s first location out of an old barbecue trailer that his business partner couldn’t sell. He wanted to bring new flavors to the scene after he saw a lack of taco variety around Texas.
But in the mid 2000s, food trucks didn’t have the same reputation as they do today. Rypka struggled to bring customers to the table. “I gave away tons of food to anybody and everybody who would eat it,” Rypka says. “I had this red Vespa and I'd hand out free chips and salsa on that. I'd walk into any building, any retail shop, and go, ‘Hey, you hungry? Here's some chips and salsa. Check us out; if you like us, give us a call.’”
Luck struck one Halloween, when Rypka organized a pumpkin patch at the trailer park and ended up being one of the final pumpkin sellers left in Austin. As customers poured in, Rypka didn’t hesitate to offer free samples of Torchy’s menu items.
“It slowly started to take,” Rypka says. “We started getting a name for ourselves.”
Eventually Rypka and his team expanded out of the trailer park and into a brick-and-mortar location, and Torchy’s Tacos has since grown to more than 60 locations spanning four states.
Evolving from a beloved local institution to a multiunit taco concept was not without some bumps in the road. When Torchy’s opened in Houston, a food critic gave an unfavorable review, noting that it wasn’t the same kind of experience as the original Austin location.
“She loved Torchy’s in Austin, and that's what happens a lot of times,” Rypka says, adding that oftentimes people loved the experience of the trailer park that can’t be replicated in other locations.
Rather than accept the bad review, Rypka challenged her by offering a free Dirty Sanchez taco to anyone who brought in the negative review, and letting customers vote for themselves. He laughs about the ensuing battle between Houston and Austin that the media turned the situations into, but adds that expanding a local, chef-driven business like Torchy’s does come with challenges in winning over new markets.
“They forget that you might have a bunch of stores, but it started small,” he says. “You don't just open 60 stores the first day you open in business.”
He’s proud of the drive Torchy’s has maintained since opening its doors. But Rypka reminds that his success didn’t come out of thin air. He says anyone who might follow in his footsteps should be passionate for what they’re doing, and more importantly, get the kind of foodservice experience necessary to understanding the business.
“Work any and every position you can,” he says. “I did a lot of that. That way you know what it's like to be a bartender, you know what it's like to be a cashier, you know what it's like to be a server, you know what it's like to be a cook, you know what it's like to be a dishwasher. It really makes a huge difference when you open something up like that.”
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