The five-unit Bodega Taqueria y Tequila is scheduled to open two units in Chicago this spring, marking the chain’s first step outside Florida in a push to triple its unit count.
Bodega is one of a number of more-elevated limited-service Mexican taco concepts with rapid growth plans. Others include Tacombi, Condado Tacos, Taco Bamba and larger fast-casual chains, like Velvet Taco, Rusty Taco and Fuzzy’s.
But Bodega is a bit different in that it is a hybrid concept with counter-service tacos as the main component, alongside formats that include a vibrant bar scene. In most units, for example, guests can walk through a mock Porta Potty door in the taqueria and find a large, high-energy tequila-lounge/speakeasy, with live music or a DJ. And a few also have a smaller and higher-end mezcal-focused bar for a more upscale cocktail experience.
“We’ve got a couple of different flavors of sizing and design,” said Jared Galbut, Bodega’s CEO and co-founder.
Galbut is also a partner in the hotel company Menin Hospitality, which operates properties that include Gale South Beach, Shelborne South Beach and Gale Port Miami at Natiivo in downtown Miami.
He and co-founder Keith Menin first had the opportunity to operate a bar called Radio in South Beach, which he said became an overnight success in the 2010s. “We thought, we kinda like this, let’s see what else we can do,” he said.
Another space became available in 2015, and the partners designed an authentic Mexican concept fashioned to look like an Airstream trailer-turned-food truck serving up street tacos like birria and quesadillas, along with more health-focused bowls built on a base of kale, Mexican rice or cilantro cauliflower rice.
Protein options include traditional pollo asado, roasted pork, carnitas and steak, for example, but also options like braised short rib, fried grouper or Daring plant-based chicken.
Because the concept is Florida born, Bodega’s menu is also inflected with certain Cuban flavor touches, Galbut said, like the option of potato sticks on tacos and charred pineapple.
The first year, the 500-square-foot taqueria did a little over $3 million, which was three times what the partners had projected.
“We were blown away,” said Galbut. “For a while we were one of the highest grossing per square foot restaurants in Miami just in that little taqueria. We were doing tremendous numbers.”
Since then, variations have opened in Fort Lauderdale, Aventura, West Palm Beach and Coconut Grove. Even during Covid, the company was able to secure six to seven deals, he said. “We knew that this concept had legs.”
This spring, two will open in Chicago.
The first in the West Loop neighborhood will be the biggest yet at almost 6,000-square-feet, featuring both the taqueria and the tequila lounge/speakeasy. The second will be in River North, and more are planned to fill in that market.
Next up is Nashville and Washington, D.C., both scheduled to open by 2024.
Galbut said there are a total of 15 locations open, signed or under construction. Of those, nine will have the speakeasy lounge, four will be a hybrid with the tacos and bar in one room, and two will just feature the taqueria.
So far, the partners have been self-funding growth. They have no private equity money and there are no immediate plans to franchise, “though we’re not ruling anything out,” he said.
Long-term goals are to take the brand to the West Coast, he said. Galbut argues that QSR-plus-lounge option—with multiple format variations—is unique in an increasingly crowded landscape of limited-service taco chains.
That could be key as Bodega competes for attention with competitors that have powerful backers.
Tacombi, for example, in 2021 won an investment from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments. Condado Tacos, which also has a bar component, received an investment from private-equity firm The Beekman Group in 2020 and plans to add 12 new units this year. Taco Bamba has backing from the parent company of Golden Corral. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop was acquired in December by Applebee’s-parent Dine Brands Global.
Galbut sees white space ahead.
“Our goal is to grow even further, past the 15 stores, with really a hub-and-spoke approach. In Chicago, I don’t want to open just two of them. I’d like to open four or five of them,” said Galbut. “It’s important for us to find a market that we’re comfortable in and expand. And expand in a smart way.”
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