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Bartaco offers full service, fresh cocktails, and vacation vibe

The 25-unit chain draws inspiration from coastal cuisines beyond Mexico


Many taco chains are limited-service operations, but not Bartaco. The Arlington, Va.-based chain, owned by private equity firm L Catterton, operates 25 full-service restaurants with robust alcohol programs and a seasonal menu offering tacos, of course, but also rice bowls, ceviche, poke, Peruvian-style roast chicken, Korean kimchi, and more.

“We take inspiration from coastal cuisine,” president Anthony Valletta said. “We have some Mexican influence, but we also have Mediterranean influences and Asian influence.”

And it’s mostly tapas — the tacos are three bites each — but if you want a rice bowl to eat by yourself, options range from wild mushrooms with queso fresco to Argentine chorizo with smoky red chimichurri to tamarind glazed roast duck.

The menu leans toward the healthier side, with more seasonal vegetables and less queso, although the restaurant in Madison, Wis., does have cheese curds.

“It’s slightly off-brand, but [the customers said,] ‘You can never take these off. This is just who we are.’”

The overall feel of the restaurant is intended to evoke a vacation, Valletta said.

“It’s meant to feel like your feet are in the sand or they're in a mountain lodge … and it's really meant to be more about the fun and the experience and the vibe, coupled with great food and great service and fresh-squeezed cocktails,” he said.

The drinks are varied and include craft sodas, Mexican Coke, and aquas frescas, as well as craft beer, sangria, and a variety of different margaritas made with juice squeezed to order, some of which change seasonally, although Valletta said the house margarita makes up 70% of alcohol sales.

Each restaurant also has its own executive chef.

“Our busy locations have an executive sous [chef], and then we have between two and three sous chefs as well,” Valletta said. Overseeing them is a vice president of culinary and some regional chefs, he added.

Average per-person checks are estimated to be in the mid-20s, although Valletta said they can’t be sure because “some like 10 tacos, some like two,” making it hard to measure.

Average unit volume is around $5.7 million.

Bartaco also has a unique service model that evolved over the course of the pandemic. Like many chains, it leaned into the QR codes to make them not just a menu but an ordering platform, allowing guests to order more drinks, pay their checks — “all of those kinds of things that you wish you had some control over [as a customer],” Valletta said.

But to make sure that the technology didn’t remove the hospitality, Bartaco created a new salaried position called a “service leader” whose job is to cover 12-18 tables, “and literally make sure that they're engaging the guests and throwing a party, and that's their one key job,” Valletta said.

Additionally, all of the tips are pooled each shift among hourly employees and they all make the same amount.

“It's really created an incredible environment,” Valletta said, adding that the average hourly wage is $24, but it can be as high as $40 during busy shifts.

That’s important, because Bartaco is opening five to six new restaurants this year and entering the new markets of Charleston, S.C., and Chicago.

Today the brand operates in Colorado, Connecticut, Washington. D.C., Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York state, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Vote for Bartaco in the Taco Showdown on LinkedIn or Instagram.

TAGS: Food Trends
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