District Taco, a fast casual Mexican restaurant brand, began a food cart in 2009. Now it’s a multi-unit restaurant franchise expanding its footprint in Virginia Beach and outer banks of North Carolina.
In 2009 Osiris Hoil and Marc Wallace, who knew each other as neighbors, created a business, District Taco, launching a mobile food cart serving breakfast tacos.
The duo shared a love of homemade chips, salsa and guacamole. The mission was to serve quality Mexican fare, created from the founders' recipes and made fresh daily, offering a fully customizable menu that includes vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
By 2022 the company had become a multi-unit restaurant franchise, with 14 restaurants employing more than 300 workers, and the number of franchise units in development hitting 70. The year also marks the sale of the brand's 10 millionth taco.
The fast casual's success-heavy 14-year journey was all due to that initial mobile food operation, according to Hoil, and the desire to launch a restaurant was seeded at the start.
The co-founders set up their cart near the metro station in Rossyln, Virginia. The initial target area was Washington, D.C., but the time required and expense in attaining an operating license changed the operation's location.
At the time, starting a business was a necessity, said Hoil in an email interview.
"I did not have another option in 2008. That makes it easier! If someone has the luxury of choice, then I would recommend being open to changing the plan and adapting in the process. It never goes exactly as planned," he said.
The cart's popularity and demand for the brand's Yucatan-inspirated menu soon indicated the business would prove scalable, and in 2010 the duo opened their first physical location in Arlington, Virginia.
Hoil's take on his business strategy is simple.
"Start with the basics. You can always make adjustments along the way, but the simpler your operation, the better. Don't expect to figure it all out and then start. This is a learn-as-you-go process. The food cart was my school. Customers become the teachers with their feedback. It becomes pretty obvious what is working and what isn't," he said.
On the path to growth
In 2011 the first District Taco opened inside D.C. at the Metro Center.
In 2016, with nine stores open, the company retired its mobile operations. In 2017 it expanded into Maryland and Pennsylvania. In 2021, with 14 stores across four states, the brand expanded into franchising with the signing of its first five-unit franchisee.
"We saw throughout the pandemic that we had a viable business in this new era," said Hoil in an email interview. "The crisis of the pandemic became an opportunity for us to refine our unique brand. It gave us the time to work through and formalize our franchise model while simultaneously making major enhancements to our digital infrastructure. With new technology and our model, we are a very appealing opportunity for franchisees."
This summer District Taco announced future development in Virginia Beach. It plans to open 10 locations in that area, including the outer banks of North Carolina. The development deal was signed with Brothers Best LLC. The first restaurant is scheduled to open later this year.
Making the move from a mobile food operation to a restaurant, said Hoil, is all about following the momentum from the "street" business and becoming part of the community where you're doing business.
"Educate yourself by learning from others and asking a lot of questions," he said. "Be creative in finding solutions to move forward when your planned execution hits a snag. Be open to advice and even criticism and learn from it. Trust yourself and trust your team." Looking back on the decade-plus business path Hoil said he would not have done anything differently in driving a mobile food cart business into the restaurant environment.
"We undoubtedly made mistakes, but we learned from them. Mistakes are just a part of the process of improvement."