The man who lit the Torchy's Tacos fire
A trained chef with Cuban leanings, he's built a chain from the trailer up
Torchy's Tacos. We've all seen one of the restaurants. The fastest-growing taco joint in town. The smiling baby devil, pitchfork in hand. A little cartoon Kewpie doll painted red and brandishing its tail. The quintessential "word of mouth" success story. The restaurants are busy every minute they're open.
Torchy's opened in 2006, about three months after Mike Rypka and a friend decided that was the kind of restaurant they wanted to own. They wanted something that didn't require a brick-and-mortar restaurant, that would offer inexpensive, delicious food, and that would be casual and include easy to-go food.
Rypka started his career in the most likely place: his mother's kitchen. He learned from watching her and his grandmother cook. "I was always asking her 'What are you doing with that? And what are you making now?'" Rypka says. His love of cooking turned professional when he got his first paying job at the age of 13 — at a Popeyes chicken . From there he went to work at LePeep in Washington, D.C., then a country club, where he nearly got fired right off the bat. "I made every mistake I could make," Rypka says.
Rypka got his academic education in culinary arts at schools in Miami. He credits Miami culture with his culinary preferences. "I loved the Cuban food," he says. "I loved working with plantains and rice and sausages. Living in Miami taught me to love street food and South American cuisine. I like high-end food, but if it's a good slice of pizza, a good hot dog, I'm fine."
Rypka says that his experience in managing restaurants gave him a good idea of what would be required to start his own business, but he didn't have a business plan. He didn't want or need anyone telling him how to develop his idea.
"I'm a scrapper," he says. "I like to figure it out for myself. I learned from being in the business.
"We started with a trailer because of the cost base . My original partner bought the trailer and was going to remodel it and sell it. It had been a been a barbecue trailer. We had a barbecue joint on West Fifth Street just west of Lamar. It didn't do very well. My partner suggested a taco place. I thought he was crazy, because you can't throw a stone without hitting a taco place in this town. I went to my creative database to see what else we could do to pork, chicken, fajita, and breakfast tacos."
How did he find the right partners to go into this venture? Relationships.
Rypka started Torchy's with a friend, Bill Roberts, who is no longer involved in the restaurant. Roberts brought on Farrell Kubena and his wife, Rebecca.
Roberts left in 2007 and Kubena's friend Bob Gentry came on to take on events and marketing. "He stayed on for three years and then left because he was done working; he wanted to retire. At the start of 2007, Jay Wald came on as head of operations to focus on training and management. Alfonzo 'Fonze' Angelone, a friend of Jay's, joined us as operations partner and handles the IT stuff," Rypka says.
"When we opened Torchy's, we had a hard time getting customers," he says. "Our first location was at Fifth and Baylor. I rode around downtown on my red Vespa handing out chips and hot sauce. I've always been a salsa lover.
"I went to the Chronicle's hot sauce festival one year and thought I should enter my sauce, which is a three-chili and tomatillo sauce. I had that recipe before I knew I'd open a taco stand. I won on the next festival."
Rypka is about to open another store in Houston. There are nine stores in Austin alone, and one in Dallas. "My goal is to get about 20 stores going, and then see how that is," says Rypka.
As for moving beyond Texas?
"If we go out of state, we'd go to the East Coast," says Rypka. "I have a lot of contacts there. Our growth has been due to customer demand. Trailers are a good way to start, but not necessarily a good way to continue to grow.
"As for retirement, if I could retire by 50, I'd be happy. I'd like to travel, even though it's stressful. It would be good to get out of Austin during summer. I'd have to do something, like volunteer work. If I could, I'd start a real Italian deli. And I'd like to stay in Torchy's, maybe stay in part-way."