Remembers Kevin Morrison, owner of a restaurant Whiskey Taco Tequila, which celebrates its tenth anniversary on October 31. “It was quite the learning curve.”
This food truck was called Pinche (Spanish slang that translates to “ridiculous” in many kitchens) Tacos, which Morrison launched in 2010. “I’ll never forget the first event we did. It was at Stapleton Farmers’ Market, and I went and vomited because I was Very nervous,” he admits.
And the taco truck wasn’t even his first commercial venture. In 1999, Morrison co-founded hot pickles, a sandwich shop that grew from humble beginnings on Capitol Hill to a chain of more than forty locations before Morrison left the company to return to his culinary roots. (All Spicy Pickle locations eventually closed, although a former employee restored one store on Lawrence Street in 2015).
Before embarking on sandwiches, Morrison worked in home roles in Chicago and Aspen and had a stint as an assistant chef at Barolo Grill. The truck was just a way for him to get back in the line without a huge investment. “Honestly, there was no thinking about ‘How am I going to plant this?'” he says. Shall I turn it into a restaurant? “But that is exactly what happened.
In their first year, Pinche Tacos are a hit at farmers’ markets. Morrison notes that while “there’s a lot of competition” today, raised tacos weren’t a trend in Denver, Morrison enjoyed running the small but busy operation. “We didn’t have a full-time crew,” he says. “I was doing everything, and for just one event, it was like a 24/7 business. If you look at sales for my hours, it probably wasn’t a good move.”
Then in March 2011, Pinche . was named WestwordIt was selected in the category Best Food Trucks in Denver. This win prompted Morrison to consider taking the concept to life. “We went out and raised some capital, and then we opened on Halloween night,” he recalls. The original Pinche Tacos is located at 1514 York Street, just off Colfax Street in the City Park neighborhood. “It just felt so good; it was great,” Morrison says of the first time he went and looked into space. The price was also affordable: “If the business slows down, I can get a cooking job again and afford the rent on my own.”
The opening day of the restaurant coincided with more big news. “My wife and I at the time, found out that morning that we were pregnant with twins,” Morrison recalls. “Again, it wasn’t like, ‘How are we going to achieve this?'” “We just did it. We just did it,” he says with a laugh.
Less than a year later, Pinche Tacos got another boost when good Appetite He named it one of the fifty best new restaurants in the country. “It was brutal,” Morrison says. In February 2013, it added a second location at 3300 West 32nd Avenue. By then, something had changed: the name.
“There was no market research, there were no studies,” Morrison says of the original surname selection process. “I don’t know if it was just naive or what, but it was like, ‘We’re in Denver making tacos — who’s going to hear about us?'” “But as the business grew, so did the pool of people who objected to what they considered an offensive name, including a key person on the state liquor board.
Today, the brand is officially known as Tacos Tequila Whiskey, but many fans have never made the switch. “I love when people say, ‘Yeah, we still call you Bench Taco.’ It feels good,” Morrison admits.
The business continued to grow. Over the course of fifteen months, he says, “we went on a frenzy and opened three new restaurants, one of which was out of state, and one that was a new concept.” In late 2016, fish n beer RiNo’s debut. In 2017, Morrison moved to Arizona with the opening of Tacos Tequila Whiskey in Phoenix; And in March 2018, a third Tacos Tequila Whiskey opened in Denver, at 215 East Seventh Avenue.
After that, the challenges came hard and fast. A fire in late 2018 shut down Fish N Beer for more than four months; The Phoenix website closed in the summer of 2019. “Phoenix didn’t work,” Morrison explains. “I love that city. Who knows? We might be back there one day. But honestly, I’ve made some bad decisions about putting the right people in the wrong situations, and I realize it’s more than just your systems and your food and your drinks when it comes to getting out of state.”
Then COVID struck. “It has taught me so many lessons,” Morrison says of the past 19 months, making the upcoming celebration of a decade in business the perfect time to reflect on the future of the brand. “Our approach is completely different,” he adds.
Many changes stem from Morrison’s self-reflection. “I realized that I needed to be a better owner and a better leader,” he admits. “Our culture is the most important thing we can do in business, and I’ve learned that the hard way. I was the typical stay-at-home guy with the temper.”
The pandemic gave him a kind of reset in his outlook. “It helped me get more sympathy — not just with my little bubbles, but with the vendors I work with, other people in business,” he says, and it also gave him a different attitude about what it means to be financially successful. “Tie-breaking isn’t a bad thing anymore,” he notes.
“The goal is to make this an industry that people want to stick around and want jobs,” Morrison explains, adding that long working hours and hard work/playing hard in the past are unhealthy and unsustainable. So he brought in a new member of the team whose job it is to focus on the culture. Other changes, such as open-door policies, salary increases, cutting hours for management and moving from a 50- to 55-hour workweek to 42 to create a better work-life balance, are all in the works.
Mental health is also the focus now. “I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression,” Morrison explains. “I’ve always dealt with it—or felt like I’ve dealt with it. But now I’m really dealing with it by being more physically active and really trying to pay attention to how I’m feeling mentally. And we’re slowly re-implementing that for employees.”
The transformations now taking place at Tacos Tequila Whiskey and in restaurants across the country have not been easy for some of the industry’s longest-running vets, Morrison included. “I fought that for the longest time,” he admits. “But it’s different now, and you either have to adapt or you won’t be around.”
The one thing that won’t change, though, is Morrison’s dedication to providing creative, high-quality tacos. Food is his number one passion and remains a driving force. “We look at a taco and think about how to raise it. How do we continually upgrade it and have it value there?” He thinks.
It keeps the creativity going at the Governor’s Park location, which was recently rebranded to Taco Bar. The goal is to test a more informal concept and give kitchen managers a chance to change the menu regularly, using Tacos Tequila Whiskey’s folders full of recipes for specialties and creative dishes as a reference.
Tacos Tequila Whiskey has also opened a venue at Empower Field, which Morrison says is “really fun and a new learning experience.” Plans are underway to move the concept to Denver International Airport as well, likely in late 2022 or early 2023.
“Looking back, it was a crazy ride,” Morrison concludes. “I’m glad I didn’t anticipate what I was going to do, because I’m not sure we would have gotten there. … I’m really grateful for the opportunities we had, and I really believe you’ll have the right opportunity when you’re ready for it.”