Sometimes when Osiris Hoil looks around one of his seven District Taco restaurants, jam-packed during lunchtime, he still can't believe it. The co-founder of the popular, quick-service Mexican chain in the Washington, D.C., metro area is living his own version of the American Dream.
"I love to show people what's possible — so I never give up," Hoil said. And his story proves it.
Hoil is the youngest of three children. Growing up in Yucatan, Mexico, he helped his mother in the kitchen. She was a great cook, and a stickler for fresh ingredients. As a child, he disliked being told to go back out into the fields to find fresher tomatoes. But today he's thankful for the extra push. Freshness has become a staple at District Taco.
"It's one of the things I know how to do, to be able to choose good produce, because she would always send me back to the farm to get new vegetables for what she was cooking," said Hoil, now 33.
After traveling to the U.S. on a visa at age 18, Hoil landed in Colorado and worked in restaurants as a cook. Hoil didn't speak English at first. But he found his motivation to learn in a beautiful waitress, Jennifer.
His strategy worked. Hoil and Jennifer, now his wife, have three children. After marrying, they moved to Virginia in 2006. Osiris Hoil worked in construction and rode the housing boom to support his family. But then he hit a roadblock in 2008, when the recession unraveled and he was laid off.
"I will never forget that day. My wife was pregnant and I begged for my job," Hoil said. "I told the owner he could pay me minimum wage, I can sweep the floors." He looked for work in construction and kitchens to no avail.
Those dead ends turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
To keep his spirits up, Hoil invited friends and family over for traditional Mexican food he prepared, dishes inspired by his mother's recipes and high standards for fresh ingredients.
One of those neighbors was tech entrepreneur Marc Wallace, who loved Hoil's Carne Asada, a beef dish. Wallace was familiar with the popularity of food trucks in Austin, Texas, and saw something Hoil did not.
"I thought a food truck didn't seem professional," Hoil recalled.
But Wallace encouraged his neighbor to do some research. Hoil discovered a truck was pricey, around $90,000. "And, I didn't know if he was serious. ... I was telling him my feelings about not having a job or insurance. Then he said, 'Let's just do something together.' And I thought he was crazy."
But Wallace was convinced he was onto something. He got family and friends to pool together close to $30,000 for a hot dog cart, which launched in 2009. Thanks to savvy marketing on Twitter, and changing up the menu daily, District Taco, originally called D.C. Taco, took off. And the cart business kept growing despite being located between established chains including Chipotle and Baja Fresh.
"We were serving 200 people a day, and I said 'Marc, I think we need to take this to a different level,'" Hoil said.
The duo opened their first physical location in Arlington, Virginia, in 2010. Today they have seven locations all around the Washington, D.C., area and are working on several more. And they're setting their sights on expanding beyond their home base region. Hoil said they're serving about 600 customers in each location daily.
"I love that we created something," said Hoil. "I love that people love my food. And the more I love to do it, the more successful it is."