A surfing trip through Mexico eight years ago was the catalyst cousins Ant Wilkins and Robbie McGillivray needed to jump into the street-food business.
Taco Medic has been surfing a wave of popularity ever since.
Today, having come through covid and expanding by three new "taquerias", two taco trucks and Queenstown and Auckland prep kitchens, the owners aren’t discounting a prospective initial public offering.
Outside of the epic surf, Wilkins, on his OE in 2014, had enjoyed the authentic Mexican food and particularly the experience and culture around tacos.
“I gave Robbie a call from the beach. He was keen as, so I came home, we bought a high-top, long-wheelbase van and kitted it out on our front lawn in Queenstown.
Most nights, the two trialled new taco flavours. On Wednesdays, they inflicted them on friends, family, and friends of friends.
“People seemed to love it," Wilkins said. "We had cue cards for people to report on which tacos they liked, so we were able to hone in on what people wanted, and what suited the New Zealand palate."
The key ingredient then, as now, was the traditional fresh-made tortillas prevalent in Mexico.
'Hell of a good time'
The taco truck got on the road on Dec 29, 2014, at a spot across from Fergburger. “We worked every night in the truck, music going, people dancing salsa outside. It was a hell of a good time.”
Within a few short months, the food truck was at number one on TripAdvisor for all of the restaurants in Queenstown, a position it held off and on for years. The original Searle Lane shop still rates at number 11, the only restaurant in the top 26 to rate with a single (budget conscious) $ symbol.
From there, the truck moved into what Wilkins describes as a “hole in the wall, a taco truck without wheels”.
“We were down a back alleyway, but people kept coming, and so we’ve been riding that wave since then and staying true to making absurdly delicious tacos.
“We played loud music, and some of the stuff that maybe you wouldn’t get away with if you were an actual store."
The two owners choose their words carefully, but also suggest strongly that the success of their business comes down to female clientele.
“It’s mainly the woman who decides what’s being eaten for dinner," Wilkins said. "And often burgers aren’t what they’re after, so we had a lot of women enjoying our fresh, healthy tacos.”
McGillivray thought the chefs themselves could have been an important part of the attraction.
He said another key to success was not buying anything that is pre-made. Taco Medic's key tools of trade, initially, were two aluminium tortilla presses, and the tacos were made as they are in Los Angeles: kneaded into dough and rolled into balls.
That, inevitably, took the cousins to North America, where they travelled south from Canada through San Diego and Mexico and into Houston, which is where they source their patented tortilla machines, at $15,000 a pop.
“We went from two to three hours of hand-pressing tortillas to having machines in each of our shops, making tacos fresh for lunch, and now for dinner as well.”
McGillivray said production of the tortillas has become part of the showpiece, and “people love watching the process”. This year, they expect to make and sell 500,000.
When the pandemic hit, the Queenstown shop slid to less than a third of its normal turnover and the company claimed the wage subsidy, but the cousins remained keen to expand.
While still in covid territory, they launched a new taqueria in the Queenstown suburb of Frankton. Then they ventured north, opening two stores in Auckland this year – a shop in Ponsonby Rd capable of seating 50 diners and another in the CBD's Quay St, opposite Commercial Bay, with potential for 140.
Wilkins said when the Ponsonby shop opened, the timing could not have been better. “There were only sad stories of restaurants closing down, so a lot of people came to support us – potentially too many: we had lines sometimes stretching for blocks for lunch and dinner service every day for 10 weeks."
He said acquiring the Quay St location would not have been achievable or affordable had it not been for the pandemic.
McGillivray said while the company had retained fixed pricing across the country, there were certainly regional differences in taco preferences.
The relatively new prawn taco has taken off in Auckland, while the Ken Tuckyman, with deep-fried chicken, tomato salsa, chunks of mango, and chipotle mayonnaise, is a crowd-pleaser in Queenstown.
Wilkins said the slow-cooked beef brisket, with chipotle and lemon, is popular everywhere, but their true point of difference from other street-food outlets is their fresh-fish tacos.
“It’s market segregating for us, with fresh fish in from local suppliers daily. So that’s where the inspiration from the beach in Mexico comes in.”
Pre-expansion and pre-covid, the Searle Lane shop turned over about $1 million during its best year, so the cousins are hopeful of doing “at least” that at each of the four taquerias this year.
McGillivray said while the company continued to eye expansion, both in Auckland and potentially overseas, current staffing issues were “a bit scary”, so any decisions had been put off until next year.
A key to their success was bringing on board investor and business partner Trevor Gile, a US-born New Zealand citizen who lives in Arrowtown.
Wilkins said the partner has been great for the company, not least because he probably eats the most tacos of any customer. “He even pays for them.”
The expansion of the group has seen it grow from nine staff before covid to 60 now, although, as for most firms, recruiting has been an issue.
Facing up to that, Taco Medic has put a lot of work into creating a robust employment brand. Earlier this year, it became a living-wage employer, and it has introduced "open book management", which aligns revenue and incentive targets for all staff.
“That’s really helped, not only with becoming an attractive brand but also for business performance," Wilkins said. “Ultimately, standing out from the crowd has paid dividends for us, and for our people.”