Rolando Curiel hypes his Brownsville taqueria, El Ultimo Taco, by frequently declaring, “If you don’t know Ultimo Taco, you don’t know Brownsville.” That bravado has helped him weather the COVID-19 pandemic thus far, but more recent inflation and supply-chain issues are another matter.
Curiel’s meat prices have increased about 30 percent. His signature El Ultimo Taco tripas have jumped from $0.69 per pound to $2.29 per pound. As a result, the restaurant owner quietly raised taco prices last July. He felt he had no other choice—the restaurant was hemorrhaging $12,000 per week. “My stomach was in knots,” he recalls. A taco de tripa went from $1.29 to $1.80, while other tacos went up by 10 cents. His signature tacos estilo Matamoros, which feature grilled beef, queso fresco, and avocado wedges, were affected by avocados increasing from $10 to $25 a case. Tortilla prices from his local supplier also jumped by 25 cents.
In a city with 29.3 percent of residents living below the poverty line and a median household income of just over $38,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, diners are accustomed to inexpensive tacos. Curiel’s decision to increase prices was a significant and difficult one. A taqueria can charge more in markets like Austin and Dallas, but not in Brownsville. “Everything is cheaper here,” Curiel says. “People complain real easy when you hike up the prices.” His customers took immediate notice. Thankfully, they’ve been sympathetic so far. “They understand everything is expensive,” he says.
Curiel isn’t the only taquero navigating increased costs and low supplies. All over the state, food businesses are feeling the pandemic pinch. In April 2020, I wrote about how the taco is pandemic-proof. I believed it at the time. However, as we move into year three of the virus, I have my doubts.
Nixta Taqueria chef and co-owner Edgar Rico raised prices as much as 50 cents to $1, and is considering eliminating avocados from his dishes, as they’re too expensive. Quality control is also an issue. Rico explains he’s had trouble sourcing his A-grade mule duck for the restaurant’s popular duck carnitas taco. B-grade duck might have torn, dark skin on the legs and thighs, or broken bones. “We have to make sure those bones are intact before we confit the duck,” Rico says. “We have to remove those bones. If you have broken bones, it’s impossible to go through all the meat to find bits of bone. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.” He tried replacing legs and thighs with breasts, but duck breast doesn’t have the necessary fat needed for carnitas. So far, there hasn’t been much pushback from customers, as a long line at the restaurant during a recent lunch proved.
Scott Buchanan, co-owner of Yellow City Street Food in Amarillo, raised prices 20 to 25 percent across the board—just enough to remain open. “I feel like our backs are against the wall,” he says. “We actually tried our best to not have to raise prices throughout 2020. We should have increased prices sooner.” The vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurant has seen price fluctuations in products like Daiya vegan cheddar, but due to an increased demand for vegan tacos, things are leveling out to a workable cost. Fortunately, this local favorite has understanding and loyal customers willing to support small businesses through tumultuous times. The restaurant has remained transparent with customers, communicating the struggles of owning and operating a restaurant during the pandemic in person and on social media.
The same is true of Jacqueline Anaya, owner of the Calisience taco truck in Fort Worth. She announced increased prices in December 2021 via an Instagram post. Anaya says that eighty pounds of meat, plus cheese, sets her back $500. She has to sell out to not only recoup her costs, but also make a profit. Thankfully, higher prices haven’t shortened the lines of customers eagerly waiting to bite into the crispy, red-hued tacos dorados and comforting birria ramen.
Despite supply-chain issues, restaurants continue to open. Chef-owner Fabian Saldaña debuted Maize in Houston in December. There, he serves tostadas, ceviche, and chile-seasoned oysters alongside agave-wrapped barbacoa, duck enchiladas, and a “Mexican caviar” of escamoles (ant larvae) with guacamole and blue corn tortillas. More adventurous or experienced diners can order a plate of insect tacos—nixtamalized corn tortillas filled with escamoles, chapulines (grasshoppers), ants, and maguey worms. Such traditional Mexican ingredients are sourced via Houston-based Oaxacan importer Agropa LLC, which also provides corn for tortillas. The $1.50-per-pound price of organic heirloom Agropa corn hasn’t changed because the cost is set by the farmers.
When Saldaña began planning the Maize menu, he was shocked to see the price of scallops had doubled. “Before, they were around $19 dollars, and now they are $40. Who can pay for this?” he says. So he nixed them from his menu. To get around increasing prices, Saldaña and his staff must be creative and resourceful to present customers with the best quality possible. For example, he mentions ribeyes, a popular dinner item, going from $13 to $18 a pound. “I can’t increase the menu price and pass that on to the customer,” Saldaña says. To address that problem, he might keep the steak at the same price, but add more enticing, affordable appetizers made from ingredients whose prices haven’t gone up as much.
It’s not just food prices that have increased. Everyone I spoke with said the cost of paper goods and plastic has hit them even harder. Curiel says cups, napkins, forks, and other sundry items have nearly tripled in price. “I used to buy a box of plastic forks for six dollars. Right now, I’m buying them for sixteen ninety-nine,” Curiel says. Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), confirmed this statistic during a January press conference. “I’m having trouble getting the number eight white paper bags,” Curiel continues. “I used to buy them for nine forty-nine. Now I’m buying them for twenty-one ninety-nine.”
Anaya, whose Calisience truck is takeout only, is paying double the pre-pandemic price for to-go boxes. A case of one hundred large boxes is $75. She blames supply-chain snafus for the increase. “They’re so hard to come by that they’re going to price them higher because we’re going to buy them no matter what,” she says.
At Maize, the gloves cooks wear in the kitchen went from $45 a case to almost $300 for the same product.
These obstacles come at a time when operators and chefs need and want to be recouping costs from the ongoing pandemic. They can’t continue to absorb the expenses on everything from beef to utensils. “Just last month, ninety-six percent of Texas operators reported that their restaurant experienced supply delays or shortages of key food or beverage items during the past three months,” says Kelsey Erickson Streufert, TRA chief public affairs officer. “Ninety-three percent reported that their total food costs are higher than they were before the COVID-19 outbreak.” Even as small, independent taquerias and Mexican restaurants are better equipped to adapt to prices and supply issues, there is only so much they can do, especially during the slow winter months.
The omicron variant has only made things worse. Nearly 70 percent of Texas restaurants report business conditions have declined in the last three months. El Ultimo Taco owner Curiel puts it bluntly: “We’re just surviving.” He has a shoot-for-the-moon plan, though. Curiel is looking at restaurant spaces in nearby McAllen, a wealthier city sixty miles up the Rio Grande, where he believes he’ll be able to charge more for tacos.
Some restaurateurs are getting tired of relying on their own tenacity. “If I hear the word ‘pivot’ one more time, I’m going to spit nails,” Tracy Vaught, co-owner of H-Town Restaurant Group, said at the TRA press conference. According to TRA CEO Knight, it’s time for Congress to provide the critical relief restaurants need to rebuild. That assistance, she argues, should take the form of financial allotments from a replenished Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). The problem is that there isn’t enough money. More than 12,000 Texas restaurants that applied for the first round of grants were denied because the fund was depleted. That is two-thirds of all Texas applicants. “The [RRF] is what we need,” Knight says. “It’s not negotiable. It’s just right to help an essential industry. Restaurants feed people.” Knight hopes people will reach out to their federal legislators and implore them to fund the RRF.
Taquerias, tiny family-owned restaurants, and food trucks are hanging on to a proverbial cliff by their fingernails, and they are losing their grip. Not all of them have the resources large restaurant groups have. They aren’t always tuned in to industry groups. Language might be a barrier. They might not have access to RRF grants. But what they do have are taco-obsessed Texans. Taqueros and chefs need individuals to patronize their businesses. Frankly, every taco counts.