Austin Samuelson of Tacos 4 Life: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur
An Interview With Vicky Colas
…Always walk in the front door of your restaurant, not the back door. It’s easy to walk through the back door and go about your daily business, but I encourage all restaurant leaders to walk in the front, pause and pretend like you’re a first-time guest. Look at the environment and look at the team. What do you see? Is there anything that needs to be improved? If you were a guest, would you be satisfied with your experience?
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Austin Samuelson.
Austin Samuelson is the co-founder and CEO of Tacos 4 Life, a restaurant that donates one meal to children in need around the world for every meal purchased at its locations. Austin founded Tacos 4 Life in 2014 with his wife, Ashton because they were inspired to be part of the global movement to eliminate world hunger. With Austin’s leadership, drive and vision, Tacos 4 Life has grown to 18 locations in five states across the United States while providing more than 17 million meals to starving children in partnership with Feed My Starving Children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur?
My wife Ashton and I never had plans to get into the restaurant space. But in 2009, we learned that more than 18,000 children die worldwide each day from malnutrition around the world, and we were called to drive change. Over the next few years, we kept wrestling with the question How can we help? We were inspired by the TOMS shoes one-to-one donation ratio and realized that a restaurant had never used this concept before. That sparked our idea for a restaurant that donates one meal for every meal purchased.
Ashton and I first opened a pizza restaurant, but the food was just average, so the restaurant didn’t survive. However, our passion for ending world hunger only grew, and we learned a lot from this experience. So in 2014, we ventured into the restaurant industry once again and opened our first Tacos 4 Life restaurant in Arkansas. To help combat world hunger, Tacos 4 Life partners with Feed My Starving Children to provide one meal to a child in need for every taco, salad, quesadilla, rice bowl or nachos sold.
We have worked hard to develop a mission-focused brand with craveable, convenient and delicious food. We absolutely love everything about the restaurant industry and remain impassioned to fight world hunger. Throughout the past seven years, we have raised more than 17 million meals and have 18 locations in five different states across the U.S. with other openings planned this year.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
We have always loved Mexican-style food because of the delicious flavors and variety the cuisine provides. What we love about tacos is that you have the freedom to get creative. The tortilla provides a blank canvas, you can use a ton of different flavors and create a unique experience — the possibilities are endless.
After we opened the pizza restaurant, we always joked that if we ever opened another restaurant it should be tacos. What started as a joke, turned into a dream, and now it’s our reality — we realized we can actually do this.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I grew up working on the farm or doing construction labor — I never worked in retail nor in a restaurant. I’m also left-handed, so when I set up the cash drawer in our first restaurant, I set it up in a way that made sense for a left-handed person. One and half years later, one brave and kind employee said, “Hey, why is our drawer set up backward? This is really dangerous — we’re grabbing one hundred dollar bills when we should be grabbing one dollar bills!” I have hundreds of those stories because we didn’t have prior restaurant experience, so we tried to do what made the most sense. Some of it has worked well, and others, like this example, create great stories.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Two years into working at the pizza restaurant, we were exhausted and the restaurant was struggling, even though we were working all day every day. We were completely worn out, and things just weren’t moving in the right direction.
We got invited to travel to Swaziland, Africa with Feed My Starving Children. On our first day, we were feeding children at a care point where kids come after school for their only meal of the day. As we were scooping food, we noticed that the food was going faster than the line was going down. We asked the other volunteers if we had more food, but they said no, this was it for the day. We only had sliced white bread to give the last few kids in line, but they needed more food than that. Ashton looked at me, cried and said, “We’re not going to do anything but help feed children.” This experience reminded us why we began a career in the restaurant industry and helped reenergize us to open Tacos 4 Life, despite our failed pizza restaurant.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Use real ingredients that people know and love. At Tacos 4 Life, we want each bite customers take to be packed with flavor — bland food and menus that all taste the same are our enemies. Each of our tacos is going to be different — we want our customers to dream about when they can come to eat our food again.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
If I could have the discipline to eat a quarter serving of our nachos with steak, half of our Fried Chicken Taco, half of our Hawaiian Shrimp Taco, half of our Chipotle Steak Taco and then queso and guacamole — I’d be pretty happy.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
We are inspired by fun and creative ideas that are outside of the taco and Mexican-style food space. Any time we eat something that is delicious and craveable, we begin envisioning how we can put those flavors in a taco.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We relaunched our franchising program this past year. Currently, we are in the process of bringing on several new franchisees who are incredible and passionate about the brand. We are excited to expand to new markets very soon.
What advice would you give to other restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
I advise other restaurant leaders to have some form of mission to tie their brand together. It can be as simple as striving to create a positive workplace. Having a greater purpose to work toward, a purpose bigger than yourself, helps you remain dedicated to your brand and passionate about your purpose.
At Tacos 4 Life, our mission to end world hunger is the reason we exist. Everything we do and all decisions we make come back to the question of How can we feed more kids?
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Hire the best people. For us, this meant hiring people aligned with our mission. If your people aren’t aligned with your goals and values, how is your brand going to be successful?
- Communicate “the why” of what you’re doing every day, multiple times a day both internally with your staff and externally with your guests. At Tacos 4 Life, we have live meal count boards and internal dashboards that detail the number of meals the brand has raised. We also communicate this organically with emails, texts, phone calls and social media by showing people how many meals we have raised and explaining the impact. This helps make our mission tangible, and as a result, our staff and guests are motivated to further our mission.
- Listen to your guests and team members. Feedback is one of the most valuable tools you can use to build and improve your brand. We are constantly asking our guests and team members for their feedback and expectations. For example, What do you need? How can we best support you? How can this process or service be improved?
- Always walk in the front door of your restaurant, not the back door. It’s easy to walk through the back door and go about your daily business, but I encourage all restaurant leaders to walk in the front, pause and pretend like you’re a first-time guest. Look at the environment and look at the team. What do you see? Is there anything that needs to be improved? If you were a guest, would you be satisfied with your experience?
- It’s going to be one of the hardest challenges you face, and you’ll work harder and longer than ever before, but it’s worth it. People told us this before we entered the restaurant industry, but you never truly understand until you experience it yourself.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
The Fried Chicken Taco and the Korean BBQ Steak Taco with chips and queso. The Fried Chicken Taco is a mixture of spicy and sweet flavors that make it amazing and unlike any taco you’ve had before. Who doesn’t love fried chicken and tacos? This taco combines the best of both worlds. The Korean BBQ Steak Taco is another unique taco that couples popular Korean-style flavors with the beloved taco. Remember when I said the taco is a blank canvas? This is a perfect example of that. And of course, no meal is complete without our delicious and creamy queso. You can’t go to a Mexican-style restaurant without ordering chips and dip!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to inspire all business leaders to incorporate a true mission into their business. Tacos 4 Life aims to end world hunger by providing meals to malnourished children. This isn’t something we do at the end of the year or if we’re profitable, we do this all of the time. It sits at the very top of our profit and loss statement and is going to happen regardless.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!
About The Interviewer: Vicky Colas, Chef Vicky, is an award-winning chef in the Caribbean food arena. In 2012, Chef Vicky was awarded a silver medal for Caribbean Chef of The Year at the Taste of the Islands completion hosted by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. She was called to represent her country and be a part of the Culinary Team Haiti as a Culinary Chef Ambassador competing with 10 other Caribbean nations. The team was also awarded a silver medal for the Caribbean Team of the Year and received an Award for “Best Team for Taste of the Islands”. A published nutrition researcher, her study was selected in 2013 in the International Journal of Child Nutrition. Her recipe and interview have been featured in Essence Magazine online, Island Origin, and most recently the cookbook Toques in Black: A Celebration of 101 Black Chefs in America. In 2019, she was nominated in the “40 under 40” class of Legacy Magazine as one of South Florida’s “Black Leaders of Today and Tomorrow”.
Most recently, Chef Vicky was selected as one of twenty women candidates awarded for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Women Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) fellowship and is also part of a selective group of talented Chefs in the James Beard Foundation local food advocacy training programs. She is a wife, a proud mother of 3 boys, a business, and a food influencer in her community. Chef Vicky has been featured in her local news stations such as WSVN CH 7, Deco Drive, WPLG Local 10 News, 6 on the mix CH 6 and Good Morning Miramar.
Vicky is also a subject matter expert in the Hospitality, Culinary Arts, Restaurant Management, and Public Health (Dietetics and Nutrition) arena. She is a graduate of Florida International University (FIU) and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.