When Osiris Hoil lost his job as a superintendent for a commercial construction company in 2008 during the housing crisis, food is what kept him sane. For the six months he was unemployed, he threw himself into the Yucatan, Mexican, recipes his mother used to make and invited friends over to share in the dishes. “They used to say, ‘Hey, Osiris, we love your food. You should bottle your salsas or open a restaurant,’” Hoil says. “I was like, ‘I don’t have any money to do that kind of stuff right now.’”
But when a friend, who had recently visited Austin, Texas, and become enamored with its food-truck scene, suggested Hoil consider buying a truck, District Taco’s path was set.
Hoil, along with that same friend who gave him the idea, Marc Wallace, debuted their food truck in 2009. “He liked my food so much, he offered to partner with me,” Hoil says.
The humble operation gained a rabid following around the office complexes of Northern Virginia; in fact, the business recouped the initial investment in less than two years. The first brick-and-mortar shop opened in a strip mall some distance from the capital’s urban center, but soon enough District Taco was able to get a foothold in some of the city’s most desirable locales.
Today, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, District Taco is 13 brick-and-mortar units strong—all company owned—and stretches throughout the D.C. area from Pennsylvania and Maryland to Virginia and D.C. proper.
The menu features build-your-own tacos, burritos, ensaladas, and quesadillas based on authentic Yucatan cuisine. “I always say that District Tacos started in Mexico because they’re all my mom’s recipes,” he says.
The second step on the menu, Dos, is choosing one’s base, which could be pollo asado, carne asada, itza (a veggie-based meat alternative), Mexican sausage, al pastor pork, barbacoa shredded beef, or carnitas pulled pork.
COFOUNDERS: Osiris Hoil and Marc Wallace
HEADQUARTERS: Arlington, Virginia
YEAR STARTED: 2009
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 13
FRANCHISED UNITS: 0
Hoil doesn’t advertise the quality of items like the Mexican shrimp, free-range eggs, and compostable forks, but it is important for him to source those premium products. “It’s good for the customers; it’s good for us,” he says. “That’s how we operate. We’re very humble. I think that’s what makes us unique.”
Lastly, Tres is how guests top off the dish: the American Way with lettuce, pico de gallo, and cheese; the Mexican Way with cilantro and onion; the Jefe Way with lettuce, pico, veggies, cheese, and sour cream; or the Breakfast Way with scrambled eggs and potatoes. And, of course, guests can choose their own toppings, too, from a list that includes everything from cabbage slaw to garlic-lime rice and pinto beans.
Hoil cites habanero peppers, grilling, and the freshness of every ingredient as quintessential components to his version of Yucatan cuisine. “We’re grilling meat, and it’s going straight into the tacos. We’re making salsas every day,” he says. Locations are roughly 2,800 square feet and feature open kitchens where customers can watch their orders being made from start to finish. The openness is further enhanced by high ceilings and a modern palette of wood, metal, yellow, black, and white.
District Taco has three frontline working in tandem, which not only facilitates throughput but also prevents bottlenecking in the make line. District Taco’s kitchen team is efficient once an order is in, but staff won’t hurry customers, especially those with kids. It’s a consideration Hoil, a father of three, understands all too well.
“I always say we’re not building a restaurant, but we’re building a community,” Hoil says of his near 400 team members. One of the biggest challenges as the company has grown is attracting and retaining great people at the business. “We don’t want people to just come in for their paycheck; we want you to come in and enjoy your time at District Taco and have a career with us,” Hoil says.
His best employees have good hearts and are passionate about their jobs, and it brings Hoil great joy to advance hard workers within the company. “We promoted somebody today, and she started crying because no one believed in her before,” he says. “She’s full of energy and passion. That’s what makes me happy.”
All stores are corporate-owned, but Hoil is exploring the possibility of expanding District Taco’s growth strategy to include franchise units, too. The key is to find partners who will be just as invested in and energetic about the concept as he is. For District Taco, that means rethinking the traditional franchisor-franchisee dynamic, both in terms of structure and profits.
The hope is that even as the company grows, it still maintains that heart and passion that Hoil began with in cooking his mother’s recipes for friends. Right now, his biggest personal challenge is finding balance in an industry that is notorious for long hours and high-stress environments. What keeps him grounded these days are his wife and kids and a dedicated exercise routine, plus the opportunity to create change with his restaurants.
“I’m part of the team,” he says. “I’m not their boss; I always tell them that I’m their coach. At District Taco, there’s no manager; there are only coaches. We don’t operate like a traditional restaurant. Everybody has their hands on the products and is learning from the bottom up.”