Michael Rypka of Torchy's Tacos talks Expansion and Secret Menu
Fri June 29, 2012 1:17 pm

Torchy's Tacos is quickly making the rounds in Texas. The taco madness all began at a small trailer in Austin. That little trailer helped sprout several brick-and-mortar locations. Over time, Torchy's grew and is now exploding onto the Dallas and Houston culinary scenes. The taco establishment seems to be opening a new location every month and shows no signs of slowing down. So what's the secret behind the restaurant's statewide success? Michael Rypka, founder and executive chef of Torchy's Tacos, says it's the restaurant's commitment to honoring the local Austin roots that helped the business grow from the very beginning. Rypka chatted with TEXAS MONTHLY about the unique growth of Torchy's Tacos, resisting any and every urge to franchise, and his upcoming plan to create a "secret" menu for all his diehard taco fans.

Michael Rypka in front of the trailer that started it all. Photo taken by Cort McPhail.

What made you know it was time to go to Houston?

The main reason was that we had a lot of customer requests asking us to be out there. We also have a lot of requests to have more stores in Dallas as well. I should mention Dallas is the main focus of our future expansion. We're headed that way in the next six to nine months.

Why is Dallas the main focus?

Again, it's all customer requests. Dallas is our most popular area outside of Austin. We picked up, headed out there, and decided to see what would happen, and so far everything is going really great. We want to keep that up.

A lot of restaurants shy away from expanding into other cities in fear that the quality of their cuisine might go down. How do you guys handle that?

It has a lot to do with training and hiring people that have the same vision as you. We put them through rigorous interviews and training when they join our team. I've been in the restaurant business my entire life. I've never not done anything but restaurants. It's in my blood, and it's something I've always been around. I know what works and I know what doesn't work. I think that's what has kept us so successful all these years.

I know you are opening a second location in Houston soon. Are you going to stop at two locations in Houston and then focus on Dallas? What's your plan?

I would imagine that we would explore more locations in Houston if the second one does as well as the first. What I'm really most excited about is next month we've got the SMU location opening in Dallas. I think that's going to be a really great store for us.

Tell me about the differences you see between the Houston, Dallas, and Austin culinary markets.

Good food is good food. It doesn't matter where you come from, or what city you are in – you know it when you taste it. I hope we do well in all of the cities we're in. I think the culture in Austin, being such a locally focused culture, has really helped us expand over the years. We've tried to maintain those roots in our organization. That's why I won't ever franchise. I like keeping it privately held and staying involved in the day-to-day business.

Where do you draw culinary inspiration from for your tacos?

I'm the chef of the company. A lot of the inspiration comes from me. Sometimes it's that I have a dish at a restaurant somewhere that's really great and it sparks an idea. It might be a suggestion from an employee or customer and that sparks an idea. Sometimes it's just me sitting around at night and something hits me upside the head and I go and make it. It is all pretty random most of the time, which is good. I think if you try to force creativity it never turns out well.

This is going to be an unfair question, but which of your tacos is your personal favorite?

That's not unfair. My two favorites are the green chile pork and the baja shrimp.

Austin's culinary scene has really evolved in just a few short years. Where do you see the city and yourselves going in the future?

I hope we'll be around for years to come. There are a couple of stores we're going to be opening in the outlying ares of Austin in the future. Again, that's from customer requests. I think we need to keep staying on our game. One thing we do right now is our taco of the month, which I think keeps things fresh and new. I'm working on a secret menu that will just be for the people who are really in-the-know about Torchy's. I hope the menu will eventually get out there and more people will learn about it. I don't know if you know this, but In-N-Out Burger has an animal style burger that's not on their menu, but a lot of people know about it. We want to do something like that. I think when you do that kind of thing it keeps people interested in everything you do.

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