Homegrown Yucatán-style restaurant chain District Taco has inked its first franchise agreement with a team planning five Northern Virginia locations, including one coming to West Springfield.
DT Nova LLC has signed a lease for its first location, at 8432 Old Keene Mill Road, slated to open in early 2023. The team, which includes Hicham El Abbassi and Isalmou Boussaa, is close to completing negotiations for additional locations in McLean, Haymarket and along the Route 1 corridor, though representatives for District Taco declined to say more pending the completion of lease negotiations.
It’s a milestone moment for the McLean company, which famously launched from a single food cart in 2009. It now has 14 corporate-owned locations and a workforce of more than 400 in Greater Washington and the Greater Philadelphia region. With the participation of other franchisees, District Taco plans to expand, first, along the East Coast, and then across the U.S.
Hoil and co-founder Marc Wallace began accepting applications from prospective franchisees around the beginning of the year but kept the search quiet until making a formal announcement in early August. The DT Nova team, also a Five Guys burger chain franchisee, was picked for factors including its industry experience running 11 fast-casual restaurants in the region.
El Abbassi and Boussaa, like Hoil, are immigrants who came to the U.S. and worked their way up, Hoil said. The pair are from Morocco, while Hoil emigrated from Mexico at the age of 17. Their first exposure to District Taco was at the chain’s Alexandria location in 2015.
“We’re very excited to be part of this great journey with District Taco with many stores to come,” El Abbassi said in an email to the WBJ.
Like it did to many of their peers, the pandemic forced Hoil and Wallace to pivot. They accelerated the development of an ordering app from a year or more to around a month, and have seen online orders spike from around 4% in 2019 to around 65%. Meanwhile, public health measures prohibiting in-person dining prompted the company’s founders to reconsider how much real estate their stores actually needed, trimming the average from around 3,000 square feet to between 2,000 square feet and 2,500 square feet.
“It put us on a spot where we needed to make a few changes to adapt to the pandemic, and once we made those changes, we felt very confident that it was a company that could be franchisable,” Hoil said.
Hoil said he believes the company has put up enough guardrails to ensure people can expect the same level of service and quality of ingredients at a franchise location. That includes software to track the freshness of ingredients at the new locations.
“We are selecting partners, franchisees, that have worked in the industry before, they have the experience, and that’s what makes us more comfortable for them to run their stores,” Hoil said.
District Taco plans to pause the expansion of company-owned stores while it works to establish its franchise network. Meanwhile, the franchise program will allow the company to expand into new markets like West Springfield that it has long sought to establish a presence. It's also exploring ways to bottle and sell its salsas through other vendors such as grocery stores.