Dario Wolos Q&A

Dario Wolos Tacombi
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Founder, Tacombi


Dario Wolos founded Tacombi in 2006 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico as a beach side taco stand, with a global vision to share Mexican hospitality through restaurants and products, while investing back into Mexican communities. Today, Tacombi operates more than a dozen limited service taquerias across the New York City, Miami and Greater Washington, D.C. markets.

In 2015, Dario founded Tacombi’s first CPG (Consumer Product Goods) business – Vista Hermosa – because he couldn’t find authentic products for the taquerias. Vista Hermosa is a line of high-quality products, made from simple, non-GMO and organic ingredients that are used across the Tacombi menu and sold in retail. The line includes tortillas and totopos (tortilla chips) that are available at over 1000 retail locations and expanding, with more doors and more product innovation planned for later this year.

Additionally, Dario’s commitment to invest in and support Mexican communities is met through The Tacombi Foundation, a certified 501(c)3 charitable organization. The Tacombi Community Kitchen, an arm of the foundation, provides food for people in need by donating thousands of quality and reliable Mexican meals prepared by the taqueria kitchens.

Total Food Service sought out Dario Wolos to share his vision for creating a unique dining experience and at the same time giving back to the community. 


For those who don’t know you, can you share a little about your background?

My mother is from Monterrey, Mexico. My father was born in France and he was a Ukrainian refugee in France. He ended up in Mexico in the 1970s. My parents met and they were married and then I was born in upstate New York. My father was working for an American company which was based there and then they moved back to Mexico, I grew up in Monterrey. I lived between Mexico and abroad, and I would spend summers next to the water. I’ve found that that’s where my thing is. Also, I think because of my upbringing, food, Mexican food has just been central to my whole life, and this eventually led me to Tacombi. 

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  • New England Food Show 2023
  • Imperial Dade

Walk us through how we got to where we are today.

I went to Cornell University to study economics and that’s where I wrote the first business plan for Tacombi. I realized back then that there was this opportunity to share a perspective on Mexico that wasn’t known yet around the world. I saw that Taco Bell, Chipotle and Old El Paso and all these legacy brands of Mexican food weren’t connecting people to this side of Mexico. I started to learn from my friends in the hospitality program. I didn’t understand that what I was going to build later would be a hospitality business. What I learned in the process was that Mexican hospitality was actually what we were going to share with the world, it wasn’t just Mexican food, it was how Mexican hospitality connects people to that tradition and that culture.

What defines Mexican hospitality?

I like to describe it as a dance that is very polished and professional. We welcome people into our homes, and put out the best China, ‘mi casa es tu casa’ comes from how Mexicans treat each other. Hospitality in Mexico has more of the old-world thread running through it unlike the European type of hospitality where it’s professional, it’s a career.

acombi Tacos al Pastor
One of the top dishes at Tacombi is the Al Pastor Taco: pasture-raised certified Berkshire pork, thinly sliced and marinated in a special chilies and spices marinade, slow-roasted on a trompo. The meat is then sliced off as it is cooked and topped with cilantro, diced onions and pineapple.

Those things embody the cultural values of Mexico and how people take care of one another. I think Mexico is one of these very special countries in the world, where that love that people share with each other every day, is just central to how Mexico exists.

That love comes through in its food, and its culinary traditions, it comes through in the care people have for each other in their communities and that bond of Mexican community and family at the center. I started to really look at it through the lens of how are we going to share this with the world. Because I think when I travel around the world, no matter where I’ve been, I think these people would like this, right? Whether it’s Brazil, Tokyo, London or the United States, I think people really love this aspect of Mexico, and it would therefore drive appreciation for Mexico, which would support my mission, which is Tacombi’s mission, which is to invest in Mexican communities.

How did a business plan you wrote as a student at Cornell, evolve into this vision?

When I started selling tacos out of this VW bus on the street in Mexico many years ago, my plan was to invest our profits in education. Even before the business became profitable, we would donate to charities and different cultural events. In 2018 we were able to formalize the foundation and today, it is really focused on addressing food insecurity. This year, our foundation will donate around 400,000 meals and we’re doing that in the three cities in which we operate our 14 taquerias. In Miami, we’re making meals and delivering it to address food insecurity in each market, and they’re making these at each Taqueria, and each Taqueria is responsible for their own amount of meals delivered. Each Taqueria team member writes a handwritten note of encouragement which is just beautiful. 

How does Tacombi today differ from the original business plan?

Remember I wrote it as an economics student, so it was much more technical. The plan detailed an overview of both the Mexican restaurant and CPG (consumer packaged goods) Mexican food marketplace. I saw an opportunity for the next level up of Mexican food to come into the market and that business was called Taco Rex. I have somewhere a picture of that original business plan. Taco Rex, with dinosaur wearing a hat. Right after Cornell, I shelved the plan and took a job in London at an internet startup, that was really fun. I soon realized by that my passion was that plan I had written. 

How did you pivot back to the original Mexican Food/Restaurant idea?

While I was living in London, I went on a vacation to Playa del Carmen and a friend of mine gave me some really good advice: “Dario, if you really want to do this business, you’ve got to do it in Mexico.” His logic was that it would be much more affordable in Mexico than in the UK. He was right, I had no idea what I was doing, I’ve only been a customer of food. And it was hard and it continues to be hard but I love it. This same friend introduced me to his cousin who lent me his couch in Playa Del Carmen, I was going to move in from London. And I was staying on this guy’s couch, trying to figure out how this was going to happen, and then eventually, the name Tacombi kind of resonated with the actual mission that I’ve had in my heart, which is from a very young age trying to address this issue. 

Tacombi Bleecker Street NYC Location
The interior of the Tacombi Bleecker Street location in New York City.

What does Tacombi mean, and how did you find the bus that has become such a big part of the brand?

Combi is a VW bus. I combined the VW bus and taco. I went looking for a VW bus and I found a number of clubs of Volkswagen aficionados, that exist all over the world and restore old Volkswagen Beetles, buses. I found this one club in Mexico City where I found a gentleman who was selling his 1963 green mini bus. I went to buy the bus for $3,000, which I think was 30,000 pesos at the time. And it was missing three of its windows, it only had the front bench. I drove it from Mexico City down basically, towards Puebla, which is like the first stop on the way back to Playa del Carmen. I went over this huge mountain pass that goes next to the volcano in Mexico City. And I thought I was going to die, it’s like a death trap, every time a truck passes by, it was shaking! And you couldn’t go faster than 20, 30 kilometers per hour. It broke down in Puebla, and we towed it a little bit further and eventually, we got to Playa del Carmen. We arrived just in time for Hurricane Wilma, which came through and stayed on top of Playa del Carmen for like three days. I figured out how to cut open the Tacombi so I could make tacos out of it. I wanted to get it started but I didn’t know how. And then my dad came and visited me. And at this point, my parents were like, you’ve lost it! But being loving parents, they gave me $20,000. And I think I had $25,000 of my own to get started, it wasn’t much. I opened it on February 6th of 2006 never having done this ever before. That was 16 and a half years ago, and we’ve been learning ever since. 

What led to the launch in the US?

In 2008, I had been open for just two years when the swine flu hit Mexico, it pretty much closed down tourism in Mexico for about six months. I had just opened the second location which we had to shut down. I packed up that bus and in 2009 I was committed at that point saying, if I don’t take it somewhere outside of Playa now, this will never happen. London was at this point way too far away so I was looking around the United States and Miami, Austin, Los Angeles, New York, trying to figure out where I would do the first one in the United States. And I decided on New York, I think for the same reasons that I chose Playa originally. It was one of the more international destinations in Mexico, and then in this case, in the United States, if not the most international city. And I thought, I’m building a global brand, New York has got to be the place to go. 

Why New York, not exactly a Mexican food/restaurant hotbed?

New York City is all about neighborhoods. You can get around on the same subway or even on a bike. It is also all about the communities within those neighborhoods which creates a great opportunity for a restaurant. In hospitality, as I’ve learned over the years, whatever you put into the community, you get it back many times over. In building Tacombi in New York, we fully understand our place in the community so that we can contribute to the community and be part of it over the long term. As an operator, you need to understand that the brand kind of fades away when the customer is in our restaurant, and it becomes all about the customer experience. 

Where was the first location in New York and how did pick the spot?

It was luck. I rode my bike around downtown trying to find this first location in New York, I knew I wanted to be downtown. It resonated with me. I was on my bike going through SOHO and I ran into this man hanging a sign on his storefront that said, for rent, and when he did that, I knew it was my opportunity to sit down and speak with someone and explain to him what I really wanted to do. On a handshake, he literally let me push the bus into the space and I was literally pushing the bus all over downtown New York doing events, trying to promote it. And, we agreed that it would be three months and I had three months to get the money together to do this, it took six months. We signed the lease in March of 2010 and opened in September of 2010 and this became a full-service indoor dining concept, from a street taco stand where you could place orders and sit down to this indoor dining that could operate all year. Eventually we got a beer license and a liquor license which made dinner viable. Having at least the option of alcohol was important and that allowed us to operate 11a.m. to midnight every day, one menu, full service sit down where people could consume a beer or Margarita at nighttime or on the weekends. It started to really round out what that could be. 

Vista Hermosa Portfolio
Vista Hermosa was formed by spirit and resolve inside the sturdy brick walls of Tacombi. The tortilla is the golden foundation of a quality taco and without local sources who met their quality standards for freshness and flavor they decided to make our own, the traditional Mexican way. From scratch. Every day. The Totopos are Non-GMO and Gluten Free and made from 100% nixtamalized corn tortillas. Vista Hermosa totopos are made the same way you would find in the markets of Mexico by cutting our tortillas into four golden triangles and lightly frying in sunflower oil.

How did the retail/grocery tortilla line come about? 

We found our niche and began to grow steadily with a new Taqueria in New York City every 12 to 18 months. With my love of the ocean, we even opened in Montauk. In 2016, because we were making our own products for consumption in the restaurant, so need based, we couldn’t get quality tortillas that we wanted, we started making our own tortillas. The tortillas were so good that they were sold at Whole Foods. We had already architected the brand to tell the story of Mexico. Whole Foods gave us a new vehicle to tell that story. That side reinforced our supply chain for the restaurant which made the food in the restaurants better. From 2015 to 2020 our food just got better and better as we were focused on the ingredients. Our hospitality and our systems got better and better until 2020 when like everybody else, we had to figure out how to survive. We’ve also been able to tap in to the expertise of Gary Hirshberg who founded Stonyfield yogurt. He runs the Hirschberg Institute and twice a year mentors entrepreneurs in the food space. He has invested in a number of businesses like ours and has helped us fine tune our CPG strategy. 

How did you decide between corporately owned stores and franchising to grow the Tacombi brand?

I had decided many years back, that I wanted to pursue a company owned model. As we grew Tacombi and as we revisited the conclusion remains to fund/finance growth centrally. Different than other restaurant brands, Tacombi is a 360 concept of the Mexican experience that needs to flow through this one lens of the brand. With our work and access to Danny Meyer and the EHI team, we are now taking a Shake Shack approach to our global growth potential. I believe a large part in today’s world an important aspect is globalizing early if you don’t get it into your DNA as you’re young in the company, the United States is so big, you’ll never get it. So, I wanted to make sure that we took a licensing strategy to our international vision. Shake Shack has some of the best partners in the world in their operation. Coincidentally many of the same partners that have grown Starbucks around the world. We are having those conversations now for international licensing, trying to bring Tacombi to Korea, Singapore, Middle East, and airports in the United States. You can’t really do it on your own. 

From a simple nuts and bolts standpoint, how do you build out the supply chain resources needed to grow across the US and Internationally?

You can get pieces for Mexican food and Mexican ingredients from a number of sources from SYSCO to Baldor etc. But to accomplish our goal, it requires a number of specialty suppliers. We also skew heavily towards organics, hormone and antibiotic-free. We’re actually very much deep in the middle of building those resources now. One of the biggest parts of what we make and sell are tortillas, it’s just fundamental to everything we do. And so, for these tortillas to get the organic certification for Whole Foods, we had to build a supply chain of sourcing the corn. With that in mind, a lot of what we are doing at Tacombi, is from scratch. We get these ingredients in and then we manufacture them to get to the quality standard we have set. 

If we’re going to South Florida, central, Mid Atlantic and Chicago, we have to figure out how to make this work. That’s the question I’m talking about today with my partners Dieter Wiechmann (Chief Creative Officer) and Johnny Hill (President). 

What is your approach to marketing the restaurants?

We look at brands like Hershey’s and Starbucks in their early days and how they went about just building customer loyalty. With our mission of excellent Mexican hospitality, our marketing goal is to find a way to share our catalogue of adventure and experiences through stories. We haven’t focused on sharing that content because, we wanted to make sure we got the food and customer experience right. 

Our goal is to really tell stories that make sense within the context of connecting people to Mexico. So, we will basically build a platform that really tells how we work to reinforce these principles in the stores, and then we can figure out how to use them to raise awareness. It could be done with social media and /or traditional advertising. For our CPG products, we definitely do supermarket coupons, personal samples of the food, and demos are a big thing. 

The crystal ball question, as you look ahead, will this ultimately be a CPG brand or a restaurant brand?

Has anyone ever done both successfully in the way that we’re going to do it? I don’t think so. General Mills and Darden did it to some extent in the 80s and 90s. More recently Starbucks has had some success in both. 

We’re actually going to have three businesses. The CPG business, the restaurant business, which is half an ecommerce business, because 40% of our revenue is through the marketplaces and tacombi.com and all that, direct to consumer and content. And I really do think we’re going to be a content player, because of how we’ve evolved. By the time we go public, we’ll have those two businesses almost equal size growing in the United States. CPG and the restaurant business, and I think we’ve figured out how to do it because we grew into it organically in a way that makes sense for our business. 


All photos courtesy of Tacombi


To learn more about Dario Wolos and Tacombi, visit their website

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  • Day & Nite
  • California Energy Wise Foodservice Instant Rebates
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  • IRFSNY 2023 International Restaurant and Foodservice Show New York