Taco Mama currently has five locations with another four in the planning stages.
Will Haver was a fan of fresh ingredients well before he even knew what he was eating. As an infant, Haver enjoyed baby food that his mother made from vegetables grown in the garden outside their Mountain Brook home. When Haver got older, he worked in that same garden, helping produce the harvest used in numerous mouthwatering meals concocted by his mother, sister and grandmother.
“That was my introduction to food, ” Haver says. “I didn’t know how spoiled I was when it came to eating meals with good, fresh food.”
For the past five years, Haver has tried to provide that same type of quality meals — and pay homage to the woman who honed his taste buds — through his series of Taco Mama restaurants. Patterned after the hole-in-the-wall burrito shops Haver encountered during a trip to northern California, Taco Mama is part of the fast-casual dining style that has become increasingly popular in recent years.
And Taco Mama is certainly riding that wave of popularity. Since opening the first restaurant in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village in December 2011, Haver has added four more locations throughout the state with another four in the planning stages. Besides the momma Mountain Brook eatery, current locations are Homewood, The Summit in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.
Go to nearly any location during the lunch hour or at dinner on a Friday or Saturday night and you will likely see people lined up out the front door, waiting to place their order (though the line usually moves quickly).
“It was never my mindset that we were going to grow like this, ” Haver says. “But we were majorly successful from day one, more than I would have ever thought. So we opened a second location in Tuscaloosa, and then we just kept going and going down this path. People ask how many (locations) we’re going to have, but I really don’t think like that. We kind of just take the opportunities as they come.”
Haver got his start in the restaurant business in the mid-1990s, working at Ezell’s Catfish Cabin in Tuscaloosa, while still a student at the University of Alabama. He was hired as a server, quickly moved up to assistant manager and at age 21 became the restaurant’s general manager, a position he held for three years.
Haver then spent time with the Alabama Food Group in Tuscaloosa before returning to Birmingham to work as a food broker for the old Richard’s Meats wholesaler. But even as he was gaining valuable experience about the business side of the food industry, Haver says he eventually wanted to run his own restaurant. That opportunity came in 2007, when he became owner of Otey’s Tavern, a popular Mountain Brook bar and eatery that opened in 1990.
“I got in there and served and cooked, whatever needed to be done, ” Haver says. “I loved it. I was having a lot of fun. Then my wife and I had our second child, and I needed to make some more money. I started thinking about opening a new place. I wanted it to be fast-casual, because a full-service restaurant is so labor intensive. I knew I couldn’t maintain the consistency I want to have on the service and food side without being there all day every day.”
So when a small space opened in Crestline Village just a few blocks away from Otey’s, Haver decided it was the perfect location for his new taqueria. This was Haver’s first chance to truly design a restaurant from scratch, and he embraced the opportunity. He extended his focus beyond just the food and service to include such details as the color of the tables, the brightness of the lights and the volume of the music.
Still, Haver says, he knows he cannot do everything himself and understands the importance of hiring quality employees and management officials. In fact, Haver says he will hire somebody who he thinks is a good fit, even if he doesn’t have an opening for the position at that moment.
“We don’t hire because we need somebody. We hire because we’ve found the best. We’re always looking for the best, ” Haver says. “My COO, Robert Rodriquez, managed 15 Olive Gardens. I brought him on before I needed a guy like that, in order to build a solid foundation. Then when we started (expanding), he was already here.
“Let’s say you have five players for a basketball team, and then LeBron James walks through the door. Are you going to tell him no thanks, we have our five? No. You’re going to make room for him. That’s what we do. We’re always hiring talent. And since we have this solid foundation, I don’t feel like we’re growing too quickly because we really haven’t pressed ourselves yet.”
While quality food and service are important for any restaurant to be successful, those who know Haver say his enthusiasm toward the industry has been the key to Taco Mama’s rapid growth.
“Will is a restaurant guy through and through. He lives and breathes it, ” says Dayton Miller, vice president of corporate development for Haver’s company, Wilco Hospitality. “He’s a very creative mind who just has an eye for the business. It would be like watching game film with Nick Saban. He’s going to see things that other people aren’t going to see.”
But while Saban has only one team to coach at a time, the number of Taco Mama locations is nearing double digits. This is creating some issues for Haver and his desire to be so detail oriented about every restaurant.
“You go from being completely hands-on to learning your role as a president and CEO, ” Haver says. “I have a COO, a director of operations, a director of marketing, an entire office of people. We have a conference call every Wednesday morning, and there’s 22 people on the call. I’m thinking, ‘Where did all these people come from?’
“When I started this, it was 100 percent out of total love and commitment to perfecting my craft that I’ve been working on for so long. So I’ve had a little bit of separation anxiety from the restaurants. You have to learn to trust other people and let them handle things. But it’s hard, because this is part of my heart and soul. It’s who I am.”
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text by CARY ESTES // Photos by ART MERIPOL