Once upon a time, Will Haver was just a guy who owned a cool neighborhood burger joint, Otey’s in Crestline. The beer was always super cold, the guy manning the grill (Rodney Davis, our favorite!) could fire up a mean chili cheeseburger, and classic rock bands played on Friday nights.
But then something interesting happened. Will opened Taco Mama around the corner, on Church Street. And then he opened another in Tuscaloosa. And a location in Edgewood. And a couple in Huntsville. And one at The Summit. And Auburn. And Nashville, Tennessee. And Greensboro, North Carolina. Before long, Will was a taqueria honcho, a margarita magnate.
If you’d told him all this back in 2007 when he bought Otey’s, he probably would have brushed you off, thinking he’d never willingly look to take on that much activity. But success has a way of building up a head of steam and Will Haver—or WILCO Hospitality—is going full bore. Here’s what he had to say about it all.
Talk about the Taco Mama mindset.
Our goal has always been to keep the business as organic and grass roots as possible. Adding members to the team was vital to our growth, but we are mindful of keeping the same culture here. Finding like-minded people, people who have the same goals and ideas as we do, is how you do that. We’ve been known to hire people before we actually have a position for them, if they are service-minded and hard-working. We don’t hire warm bodies; we hire talent and chemistry.
How do you identify talent?
If I am out and about, just anywhere in my day-to-day routine, I am always on the lookout for people with that service mindset. They might be working in lawn care or bagging groceries or anyone doing what they are doing and doing it well, with pride. If I receive good service, I make a point to tell that person ‘thank you’ and that I appreciate the job they are doing. I will tell them who I am and what I do, and let them know that if they are ever looking to make a change, to please call me.
Did you bring on investors to grow the business?
I did. I was able to do Otey’s and the first Taco Mama on my own, but when I opened the Tuscaloosa location, I brought on an investor, a silent partner, with a 49 percent stake.
Is that investor a mentor?
No, but I am developing a relationship with a mentor, a guy named Dennis Thompson out of Charlotte, North Carolina. He is involved with Firebirds, started Lone Star Steakhouse, and has another concept, Viva Chicken. It started with a cold call from me, but recently, he and his son flew to town and I drove them around to all the Taco Mama restaurants. We have had some really good conversations. For me, it is really just to make sure I am thinking about things in the right direction. But I am always talking to other people in this business—Dyron Powell (Dyron’s Lowcountry), Ralph Yarbrough (Crestline Bagel Company)—we share ideas and experiences.
The Mountain Brook Chamber of Commerce recently held their quarterly luncheon, with a restaurant focus and you were on the dais (along with Chez Lulu’s Carole Griffin, Crestline Bagel’s Ralph Yarbrough and AVO/Dram’s Tom Sheffer). What was your biggest takeaway from that experience?
Really, it was just that there are more and more restaurants opening up, which drives us all to be better and better at what we do. If the fire in your belly is out, you need to get out of the business. The days of pre-packaged food are over. You have to be doing things from the heart and with passion, or you are not going to succeed. The hot topic right now is delivery because that can set you apart from your competition, but it is hard because once you hand off your product to a third party (like WAITR), you are in their hands. That is why you see companies like Panera opening up and developing their own delivery service, so they can control the whole process. That is a huge expense, more than what we can do on our own.
The real reason I wanted to participate in that event though was to show the public how hard the restaurant business is and how hard we work to excel. It is a labor of love and not for the feint of heart. Any business is tough to be successful but the restaurant business is an unusual beast because of the hours and the days of the week we work.
What is it like to live in the community where your restaurants are located? (Will and his wife and two children live in Cherokee Bend.)
It is the best thing and it is the worst thing. We have so many friends who support us here, and I love that. The down side might be that it seems that mistakes can be magnified. We wouldn’t be in this business if we weren’t pleasers so we are always striving to do just that.
How are the various Taco Mama locations different?
It is interesting because you start at home – which is Crestline – and then you go from there. You can see the growth and things tighten up and have better design. It gets more sophisticated. But like any business, from day one, it is falling down and learning from experience. You make mistakes, you get up, you learn and grow. The thing I really love is that we have done a great job of keeping each location unique to the area we’re in. Each one just feels like a local taqueria.
Expanding as far away as Tennessee and North Carolina, how do you maintain the Taco Mama culture?
We have been extremely lucky in having some longtime Taco Mama managers relocate to open these locations. These are people who understand the culture of our organization, who understand why we do things the way we do. It has been crucial to getting up and running in those markets more quickly.
Why do you think the Taco Mama concept is easily replicated in other locations, but you haven’t tried to open a second Otey’s restaurant?
Well, I never say never, but Taco Mama only came to be because of my experience at Otey’s, which is such a hands-on place, around the clock. Otey’s is really time-intensive. I opened Taco Mama as a way to earn more money for my family. Being close to Otey’s was perfect and being in my hometown was great. I never intended to recreate it again and again in other places; it is just a model that works for that.
What is your opinion on service?
I love and respect people who do things really well. We find the best people and pay them well. I would rather pay people more and charge the guest more to keep the consistency of the product. I think the guest is willing to pay more for that. I think the days of paying $8 – 10 an hour to keep good people, in my opinion, are over. Good service is an art.
We really like the music at Taco Mama.
We handpick the music for all of the Taco Mamas, and no one else has our playlist except Little Hardware. We’ve invested in a company called AME (American Music Environments), which is what radio stations use. We get requests all the time! Dayton Miller, our vice president of corporate development, and I change up our playlists all the time, adding stuff, deleting stuff. Different music plays at different times of day for a reason. You know, music can add so much to your experience in a restaurant.