King David Tacos’ founder on opening her first brick-and-mortar-restaurant and Texans’ input on her New York taco stands.
By Liz Solomon Dwyer as told to Anne Cruz
Liz Solomon Dwyer founded King David Tacos in 2015.. Originally conceived as a catering business, KDT has since expanded with two carts serving Texas-style breakfast tacos n Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as partnerships with local restaurants. In 2021, King David Tacos opened its first brick and mortar location in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, while Solomon Dwyer was managing supply chain issues, labor shortages, and new motherhood.
I was 27 weeks pregnant when lockdown happened in 2020. I’ve only recently come to appreciate just how hard this all has been. While I was going through it, I was so focused on the baby and business that survival was the name of the game. The trauma of it all only started to become visible to me recently. I had my daughter in July 2020. In the midst of all that, we also built a new HQ and launched a new business within our business, which is our own brick-and-mortar. I just had to put a lot of faith in the fact that we needed to keep on the same path and that our business not only deserved to keep going, but should keep going in the face of a lot of hardship.
We broke ground on our HQ in November of 2020. I signed a lease three weeks after giving birth. At that time, sales were in the pits. I had to be like, “It’s going to come back. Something’s going to change, and we should continue doing this.” That definitely takes a toll—it took a lot of grit for me and my husband, who is also my business partner, to keep going and keep taking hits.
I have fantasized about checking into a hotel and just chilling out and being by myself. I definitely think that when you’re a mom and own a business, a lot of people want your attention. Just being alone for a little bit would be nice. When you’re pregnant, they talk about getting prenatal massage and doing all these things yourself. It was the fucking pandemic. I didn’t get to do any of that. I just had the baby and hoped that I wasn’t getting COVID in the hospital.
Once the business came back in May, we couldn’t find anyone to work here. It was just one thing after the other. I remember we posted on Craigslist, and we did not get any responses. I said aloud, “I think Craigslist might be broken.” We didn’t know at the time about this labor shortage. All summer, all the positions—whether it was the production team, drivers, retail attendants, or even the operations team—were extremely hard to hire. It took us four months to become fully staffed. And retention is hard, so you’re overworking everyone while you’re trying to figure it out, and you hope that they stay because they’re very hard to replace.
I felt like we couldn’t catch a break for a long time. But we were catching a lot of breaks because we were still in business. There was this dichotomy of being grateful for having a business weather such a horrendous storm, but also being like, “This is really hard. Is this worthwhile?”
We’ve always stuck to grab-and-go. I think one of the reasons we were able to survive COVID is how lean and focused our business model was. Being outdoors helped, but I think it was more about the location and the way the product is made and served. A lot of the business moved to more residential areas, so Prospect Park saw quite a big bump through 2020 and 2021, especially on weekdays.
We didn’t really understand how different opening a brick-and-mortar store was going to be until we did it. We thought, “Oh, this is going to be easy. It’s basically a cart, but it doesn’t move around. This will be easier to manage.” But the pros of having an indoor space come with a whole host of other possibilities that can complicate operations. When you pop a cart up in the park, you’re entering an already existing atmosphere. But when you create a brick-and-mortar, you have to decide what kind of experience are we providing people, how can we make grab-and-go breakfast tacos a good experience, how can we make the flow of the line better, how can we make seating better?
Soon you’ll be able to have a beer or a glass of wine on the weekends, or weekdays, but we keep it really casual. We’re only open until 3 p.m., so it’s focused on the more informal part of the day. There’s a nice patio, especially for the work-from-home crowd who uses it as a place to meet for a coffee. A grab-and-go breakfast taco and a coffee is a perfect amount of time for a quick business meeting. We’ve seen a lot of that, and parents with kids looking for something to do, but who don’t want to enter a restaurant.
Breakfast tacos are the perfect breakfast food. I’m not on some mission to make New York just like Texas. That’s not the point. And as I always say, New York does not give a shit about Texas. They don’t want to eat like Texas. But the breakfast taco has merit, and that is a perfectly balanced meal wrapped up in foil. It does what the BEC cannot do, and it does what a juice cannot do—it satisfies you, and gives you a nutritious meal, and makes you excited to get up in the morning.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m making things too complicated. There are a lot of reasons I stick with our tortilleria down in Texas, but I always go back to the fact that there is not a comparable replacement up here. Now there are tortillerias locally who are making flour tortillas, but they literally scoffed in my face when I asked them six years ago to make a flour tortilla because it wasn’t in vogue.
Luckily, over the years, we’ve ironed out a lot of the logistical kinks. But a lot of what we do operationally does center around making sure we always have the tortillas we need. I would be remiss if I didn’t make a plug for my brother, who many times has had to FedEx us tortillas from Texas. I’ve looked at taking flights to pick up the tortillas because it would cost almost the same as FedExing it. But we’ve done it just to stay true to our word that we have a Texas tortilla. I couldn’t even replace it if I tried. There’s not a tortilla that I could swap it with here.
Texas buy-in was very important for our success because so much of our growth has been attributed to Texans proselytizing about breakfast tacos. If they give us their seal of approval, then they tell their friends, they tell their offices.
If there has been any pushback from Texas, it’s usually people from San Antonio who have any issue with the words “Austin” and “breakfast taco” being next to each other in a sentence. San Antonio can take the title—it doesn’t matter to me. It’s not consequential to making a good breakfast taco. People will say, “Well, it wasn’t exactly like Austin,” and I’m like, “Good, because it’s impossible for you to feel the same way as in Austin. We’re in New York. It’s not 75 degrees in December here.”
The reason breakfast tacos haven’t made it out of Texas is because you can’t make them a way of life in the same way they are in Texas. They’re built into the ecosystem in Texas. Breakfast tacos are part of the morning routine. The best way to convince people to make a change about what they eat in the morning is to insert yourself into their routine through coffee shops or wherever they already are. You’re going to be hard pressed to convince somebody in Chicago to drive out of their way to get a breakfast taco. You’re going to have to bring it to them.
So we’re continuing to focus on the wholesale business, but expanding first into what I would call hyper-regional. There’s more work to do in New York, but New Jersey and the commuter cities are not far off, hopefully. Then I think it’s probably the traditional Northeast expansion, looking at Philadelphia, DC, et cetera. Those are definitely breakfast taco-barren lands, and we’d like to be there.