Food and Dining
8:02 am
Sat January 26, 2013

Op-Ed: For Taco Punk, Let the Market Run Its Course

What a miserable shank in the ribs it is to have to ask to borrow money from friends. It forces you to choose between pride and survival. It instills an immediate sense of gratitude and obligation towards those who lend. The borrower has to consider whether they’ve been spending wisely in the first place.

Good thing Taco Punk isn’t asking to borrow. They’re taking a much easier route, asking friends to fork over $20,000 via Kickstarter, no strings attached, in the next 33 days. It seems that taking in loans—like the $40,000 METCO loan given to Made by Hand, LLC (Taco Punk’s parent company) in May 2011—is all a thing of the past.

You can’t blame them, really. Who needs a loan when you can get a bailout?

My sympathies (and my appetite) are with my Louisville restaurants. Even with the National Restaurant Association’s predicted 2013 increases, a higher annual growth rate than the national economy for over 10 years , and the fact that the industry claims 10 percent of the country’s workforce, opening a restaurant in this city is still brutal.

In terms of restaurants per capita, Louisville offers an enviable table count; we diners don't have to negotiate. Couple that with the variety of first-year failure rates of restaurants all across the country, which run anywhere from 25 to 75 percent depending on your source, and you’ve got a hyper-competitive industry that sinks entrepreneurs into 18-hour workdays and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

Having worked in my fair share of kitchens and seen chain restaurants swallow local businesses all my life, I make sure just about all of my purchasing power is punched back into my town. In the process, Louisville restaurants have gained my trust; I’ve gotten used to getting a solid return. So when a third-rate taco baron, selling $10 papier-mâché tortillas, starts passing the collection plate while preaching the “Keep Louisville Weird” sermon and serving bad beer, you better believe I take umbrage, particularly when their initial business plan relied on windfall income from unlucky tourists.

Taco Punk’s recent dilemma reinforces a truth that no one wants to hear: for all its organic ingredients, NuLu is artificial. NuLu exists for restaurateurs and their upper-middle income patrons; Butchertown and Phoenix Hill exist for the rest of us. NuLu was bought, remodeled and painted; Butchertown was river-borne, anointed in blood and bourbon. Taco Punk, unless quickly rescued by East End benefactors, is going to fall into the inevitable socio-economic division that occurs when you charge $10 for two tacos in a neighborhood where about 40 percent of the people are on food stamps. The best advice anyone could give Taco Punk would be to pack up shop and head to the West End, where people have been clamoring for a decent sit-down restaurant for years, instead of trying to re-inject themselves into a neighborhood already saturated with better options. But that might require them to make a taco that the neighborhood can afford, and that isn’t a crumbling disaster covered in vegan fail sauce.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the best advice comes from Sowder himself, “Let the market run its course. If no one wants $85 door knobs, the store selling such things will go out of business.”

Rae Hodge is a Kentucky Public Radio intern. We asked her to opine on this story because of this review of Taco Punk last year in The Louisville Cardinal.

An op-ed by Taco Punk owner Gabe Sowder is here.

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