The guys behind Taco Cat: "We've gotten better at our jobs."
Tristan and Dan of Taco Cat
When Tristan Jimerson and Daniel Laeger-Hagemeister set out to open Taco Cat, their palindromic bicycle-delivered taco service, they didn't expect anywhere near the response they received within their first few weeks of business. But this is the age of the internet, and in Minneapolis, word of anything regarding tacos, cats, and bicycles spreads fast.
Last week, we checked in with Jimerson and Laeger-Hagemeister to hear how things have progressed since their April opening.
Hot Dish: How has business been going? Tristan Jimerson: Things are going really well. Looking back, our business has changed so much. We didn't really know what we were doing at first. We still don't know what we're doing, but we have a little bit better of an idea. We're starting to put systems in place for things that didn't exist before. It's starting to feel more like a proper business. Things are running much smoother than they were in the beginning.
Daniel Laeger-Hagemeister: Much less chaotic.
Tristan: The quality of service has gone up, the quality of food has gone up. We've gotten some things under control. We still feel a lot of great outpouring of support from the community. That hasn't changed.
What were the first few weeks of business like?
Dan: Madness. Just madness. All over the place.
Tristan: We got a lot more press than we had anticipated. Before the first night, we had never cooked in this kitchen before, so we didn't have systems for anything. We were just kind of throwing stuff together as we went. You make it through and no one catches on fire and no one dies. It's just food. But it was definitely more stressful than it needed to be. But then things have kind of leveled out now and we're steadily increasing in sales. We're getting more regular customers and people are coming back to try it again, which is really nice. We weren't sure if it was going to be this flash-in-the-pan, "this is a weird novelty" thing. Like, I'm going to get this once and totally forget about it. Dan: It was really, really busy for the first two weeks. Then it kind of slowed down and plateaued and we changed some things -- started doing specials and business has been going up since then. It doesn't feel so challenging and stressful anymore to do a lot of business, because we've gotten better at our jobs.
How many orders were you getting per night after those first few articles came out?
Dan: We were doing like 70 deliveries a night for the first couple weeks and then it kind of dropped off to a more regular number and it's been going back up since we started doing the new menu.
Tristan: We hadn't cooked in here before, we had a super basic menu, and we didn't really have time to work on it and figure out what worked best. We had never cooked some of the stuff to keep for several hours. Some friends of mine worked on the menu with me and we pushed out some really good stuff that we're happy with. Something as simple as adding rice and beans as a side took us four months to do, just because you get so busy and you're just so focused on keeping the thing open and running that you don't have time to do anything extra. We brought a few more people on, which has helped us step back a bit and do more management and forward planning.
What's your process for devising new recipes? Tristan: I was lucky that I have a lot of really talented friends in the business. We're a pretty open business model. I'm not closed off about this stuff. When people make suggestions, I take them, or I listen to them at least. It feels much more communal in this kitchen than in other places where there's a head chef. Our menu is just kind of cobbled together with some great recipes. You mentioned that quality has gone up. How so? Tristan: We transitioned from cooking smaller plates to cooking on a larger scale. There's a difference there. Things that we were cooking before didn't keep for very long, so then you'd make a bunch of it and a bunch of it wouldn't be nearly as good. We're doing a lot more slow cooked stuff, a lot more stuff that gets better as it sits and can kind of stew in its own juices. We still have short order stuff. Having everything short order was really difficult for us. They're just better recipes. Some of the guys that have been contributing are way better cooks than me. It's great to have that input. I've worked in kitchens before, but I'm definitely not a chef.
We were doing really basic street-style tacos when we first started and we're still doing those, but we've expanded. We've done some more fusion tacos.
Are the toppings homemade? Tristan: Everything we do here is homemade, with the exception of the tortillas from La Perla. We do our own rice and beans. We don't get canned refried beans -- those are all done by hand. We try to take the extra step to make sure everything is the highest quality it can be.
Are you still tinkering with more ideas? Tristan: Constantly. We were doing weekly specials pretty regularly. It let us try out some things before we got the menu revamped. What have been your most popular menu items? Tristan: Our original steak tacos have always been our number-one seller. Super basic, and they're good. They're just solid steak tacos. Dan: The Larry went from being a special to being on the menu.
Tristan: We sold more of the special than we did anything else for four nights in a row. How do things work in the kitchen?
Dan: We have three different kinds of meat. Some things are cooked to order. Some things can stay in a hot pan all night and be fine. But doing more stuff to order has been a lot of fun, like cooking the steak to order, and using the flat top has been fun. Better quality stuff is coming up.
Tristan: Especially now that we've plateaued a little bit, we don't have to prepare stuff so far in advance. It lets us take a little bit more time. Just like any place, most of the stuff is prepped and just needs to be heated up and assembled. A lot of the night shift is just taking phone calls and putting together simple tacos.
Are there two shifts each night? Dan: It depends on how busy we've been for the last few days. If we're super busy three days in a row, there's almost a full day of prep work that needs to be done sometimes.
What time do you come in to prep? Tristan: Usually around 10 or 11 a.m.
Dan: Then that person leaves at 8 p.m. or something like that. The person at night comes in at three or four. Do you have regulars? Are you reaching a specific demographic?
Dan: I mean, we don't see them, but what it sounds like on the phone, it's people like us. Tristan: It's like mid-20s and early 30s. We definitely have people who are outliers in that demographic, which is always cool to see. We definitely have some great regulars.
Dan: A guy in Uptown, an English guy, calls multiple times a week. He just loves it. We were thinking about naming a taco after him. Tristan: I was talking to him one night and was like, "we'll make a special for you one week. What do you like?" He said, "I like tacos."
I did make him special tacos, those fried tofu ones, and he missed them. He was out of town the whole week. He didn't call and I was like, "I hope he's okay."
Dan: The level of freedom that we get here is something we've never had at a job. We served walking tacos one week. We just got the little bags of Fritos and got some ground beef and shredded lettuce. It was the Fourth of July weekend. Tristan: We buttoned them closed with the little binder clips. We've ordered from you guys a few times and found that you were really fun to talk to on the phone.
Dan: That's I think what a lot of people like about working here and what people like about ordering from here, is that it's laid back. Everyone is still good at their jobs, but we're not yelling at anyone in the kitchen, we're not breathing down everyone's necks. Everyone just does their jobs because that's what they're here for. For a second job, it's a fun job.
Tristan: Great bosses, but terrible managers.
Anything else coming up?
Tristan: We've got some exciting news coming up around the new Uptown taproom. We'll be doing food for them.
Dan: The LynLake brewery. They're not going to have food there, so our menus will be on the tables. We'll make the tacos here and bring them down. When the brewery is open, we'll just be open every day.
Check back in tomorrow for the second half of our interview with Taco Cat's founders.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.