Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow, Startup Monday is a weekly column that highlights Arlington-based startups, founders, and local tech news. Monday Properties is proudly featuring 1515 Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn.
Seeing his cart flipped in the middle of what was then called Lee Highway in Rosslyn, with eggs and taco shells spilling down the street, Osiris Hoil was close to giving up his dream.
The co-founder of District Taco, which in 2011 was but a simple taco cart, called his neighbor and business partner Marc Wallace for help. He came to Hoil’s rescue bearing tools, know-how, and resolve to fix the cart’s broken hitch.
“I’m so stressed out, so tired,” Hoil said as he recounted the story of the flipped taco cart to ARLnow. “But then Mark said, ‘don’t worry man, someday we will be laughing about this.'”
Sure enough, more than a decade later, Hoil and Wallace are indeed laughing at the memory of their flipped taco cart, an incident that was covered by ARLnow at the time (and followed soon thereafter by another Rosslyn fender bender).
Today, the two Arlington-based entrepreneurs have just sold their 10 millionth taco and are on the verge of franchising the Mexican fast-casual restaurant that started as a taco cart on the streets of Rosslyn (and then Crystal City) in 2009.
As Hoil and Wallace explain it, the idea of District Taco and their partnership came out of two neighbors drinking beers on each others’ porches and lamenting about the economic downturn.
It was 2008 and both were living near Yorktown High School at the time. Wallace had just sold his tech company and would often chat with Hoil about the hardships of the construction business, the industry that Hoil worked in at the time. They’d also scarf down chips and Hoil’s homemade salsas, made from traditional recipes that his mom used back in Yucatan, Mexico.
With both at transition points in their careers — Hoil was laid off during the 2008 financial crisis — they decided to partner and open a Mexican food truck, at a time when those were still a bit of a novelty. But an actual food truck proved to be too pricey.
“So, we got a cart which we pulled behind a pick-up truck,” said Wallace. “A food truck costs $100,000, so we went with a cart.”
They got the necessary permits from Arlington County (D.C. initially denied their request) and set up their cart by the building that houses WJLA in Rosslyn.
Within months, breakfast tacos became District Taco’s calling card.
They also had help from local notables. WJLA’s meteorologist Brian van de Graaff would grab a couple of breakfast tacos before work and talk about it on-air, Wallace remembered.
“Before he went on the news, he would come down and get his tacos,” he said. “It was great PR for us.”
ARLnow wrote about the popular Rosslyn food cart a number of times in those early years too.
In late 2010, Hoil and Wallace opened their first brick-and-mortar location at 5723 Lee Highway (now Langston Blvd), near their homes. The original District Taco is still there today.
Despite that initial success, both say it was not an easy road. Beyond a flipped taco cart, there were also lean times, delays, and near disasters.
“If I told you how many times I wanted to give up, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Hoil. “I was working so many hours, wasn’t making any money… and, one time, I almost burned down my house cooking.”
What got them through it was their belief in their product. All the recipes are from or inspired by Hoil’s mother — and the service was modeled after her as well.
“The recipes from my mom and traditional recipes from my family. But it’s also the atmosphere of District Taco, that’s what you’ll get in Yucatan too,” said Hoil. “The friendliness of the people and the way we make the food in front of you, that’s the experience you’ll get in Mexico.”
Wallace also noted that when District Taco started, there were few local chains serving up authentic Mexican cooking in a fast casual setting.
It’s taken nearly 15 years since sitting on each other’s porches and coming up with an idea for a taco cart, but the future is now for District Taco.
There are currently 14 District Taco locations, including two in Arlington (Yorktown plus Rosslyn). All but one location are in the D.C. area, but the hope is to change that with franchising.
For now, the plan is to expand its presence in Northern Virginia, starting with its two franchise restaurants in Springfield and McLean. The aim is to open both by the end of the year. From there, the mission is to move further out.
“We’re looking to expand in Pennsylvania, Delaware… and then to the midwest,” said Wallace.
When asked if international is also the goal, they both say absolutely. But for this Arlington-based business that started as a small taco cart in Rosslyn, they know their concentration needs to be on the here and now.
“The sky’s the limit. We want to go everywhere,” said Hoil. “But we gotta take it one taco at a time.”
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