Minding Your Business
El Taco Cartel
Pedal Powered Portions Come to You
By Jane Porter
Photos courtesy of Justin Miller
The founders of the taco peddling bike-cart hybrid El Taco Cartel have had a busy ten months since they began selling their three-dollar tacos in downtown’s City Plaza last August.
Both Justin Miller and Lily Ballance have full-time jobs – Miller at WedPics, the popular wedding photo sharing app he created, and Ballance as the owner of William and Company, the cozy Person Street cocktail bar she named for her three-year-old son. The pair didn’t envision their taco delivery service growing so much, so quickly.
“It wound up getting way bigger, way faster than we thought,” says Miller when the three of us met up at William and Company on a Friday afternoon. “When we rolled it out, it was this fun side-gig for both of us.”
“Now, we are trying to figure out how to utilize our time best,” Ballance explains.
It’s been nearly a year of trial and error for El Taco Cartel and its five employees, starting with convincing city and county officials to sign off on the bike-driven cart as a food service vehicle – think something between a food truck and a Sabrett hot dog cart – and evolving to a tweaked business model: instead of catering to Fayetteville Street’s office-working lunchtime crowd, the Cartel is focusing more on hungry revelers at bars and private events.
El Taco Cartel is inspired by the taco vendors’ carts you’d see commonly in Mexico and Latin America and Ballance, who is from Mexico City originally, draws on ideas from her own family recipes. Another chef, Kyle Collins, buys ingredients from the farmers’ market, and he and Ballance prepare the tacos out of a commissary at downtown Raleigh’s Five Star restaurant. Two other employees ride the bike and sell the food.
Unlike a food truck, the cart has no refrigeration or means of cooking on the spot, meaning Ballance and Collins had to guess at how many tacos to make and hope they’d all sell. That could be tricky.
“Some days we’d get hit really hard, some days not, and there was no rhyme or reason,” says Miller. “We decided we would be better off with prepaid, one-off events, in addition to selling at certain bars.
For no cost, El Taco Cartel sets up outside downtown bars and breweries, including Crank Arm and Ruby Deluxe, several evenings per week. It works with hosts to cater parties and private events all over Raleigh and in Durham, which are booked through the website eltacocartel.com.
In a Raleigh market that’s saturated with taco options, El Taco Cartel stands out for its high-quality, seasonal ingredients and intriguing combinations of flavors, including vegetarian and vegan options.
Recent offerings include a pork taco with blueberry, cinnamon, molasses, burnt cabbage, and Oaxaca cheese; a chicken taco with strawberry, rhubarb, and crème fraîche; a braised beef taco with honeydew, coconut milk, spring onion, and peanut; and Ballance’s favorite, a chipotle cauliflower taco, with white chocolate pipettes from Videri Chocolate Factory.
“It was the best taco I’ve ever had,” Ballance says. “I wanted to eat them all day. Our tacos are really neat and different,
The taco bike has been popular, and Miller and Ballance admit that it’s been a challenge for them to keep up with demand.
“It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless,” Miller says.
Because of the abundance of competition, Ballance and Miller are thinking of ways to go beyond the taco as they grow their business. They’re still working out details, but it’s a change that may involve some re-branding over the summer, Miller hints. The bike-powered delivery method will remain the same.
“We have some really neat new ideas that we are starting to experiment with in the kitchen,” says Miller. “It will be a tweaked offering on what we’re doing today which nobody else around here is doing. It still has the Latin roots and flavor, but it’s just a different style vehicle that we want to bring out.”
Taco devotees will still be able to special order Cartel tacos for private events, and Miller and Ballance are looking into potentially setting up a brick-and-mortar store down the road. They’re also considering launching an app for taco delivery. Though the changes mark a departure from what they’ve been doing so far, Miller is sanguine about the new directions in store for the El Taco Cartel.
“Our changes aren’t because the business isn’t working,” he says. “It’s more that we feel there’s now a great opportunity to bring something new and exciting to the market. We have a fresh opportunity. We’ll call it that.”