Californian-based Mexican concept Tocaya Organica has grown to 15 sites in just three years and has plans for nationwide as well international expansion. Kerstin Kuhn speaks with parent company The Madera Group’s president Michael Tanha about what sets Tocaya Organica apart from its competitors, and its plans for investment.

Founded in Venice, California, in 2016, Tocaya Organica is a fast-casual Mexican concept with a chef-driven menu that takes a vegan-first approach to tacos, bowls and burritos, all for under $15. With 13 locations in Southern California as well as two in Arizona, the growing chain’s mission for better eating is redefining the fast-casual sector’s popular Mexican segment.

Tell us about the company’s founders and your role within the group.

Tocaya Organica was co-founded by Tosh Berman and Amrou Manaseer, who came together in 2015 to form The Madera Group, which is now parent company to both Tocaya Organica and Toca Madera, an upscale Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood. I first joined the company in 2018 as CFO after I saw great potential to build something that would have a lasting impact not only on consumers, but also on the environment. During my time here, I’ve helped lead Tocaya Organica through a very impressive expansion period, growing from four units to now 15, more than doubling the company’s revenue year-on-year and going from 200 to over 1,200 employees.

Scottsdale Kierland Commons Interior (2)

What is the core idea behind Tocaya Organica?

The core idea is making eating well effortless. For example, if you wanted to make a bowl like ours at home, you’d have to go to a high-end supermarket, spend $50 on ingredients and produce, and then cook it home. At Tocaya, you can get that same exact bowl for under $15, made fresh for you with quality ingredients. I don’t really know where else you can get that type of quality food, in a quality environment, effortlessly.

What have been the group’s biggest milestones so far?

The restaurant is only three years young, and we’re really proud to look back on how far it’s come. The first location of Tocaya Organica in Venice opened in 2016, and it’s essentially a 1,200 sq. ft. vintage taco shack. Now our newest locations are nearly 3,300 sq. ft. with patios in A+ locations. Our journey has been pretty rapid and two of our biggest milestones were this year: opening up our first out-of-state location in Scottsdale, AZ; and surpassing the thousand employee mark for Tocaya Organica during the first quarter. Our next major milestone will be completing our first large institutional raise for Tocaya Organica.

What sort of investment has the group received so far?

Tocaya has only undergone a seed round of investing with friends and family of the company. Its parent company, The Madera Group, did a $21 million financing round with Breakwater Management in 2018. This benefitted Tocaya greatly and led to a lot of the expansion we’ve seen in the past year. In addition, this financing helped institutionalise the company, bringing more discipline and direction. With our rapid success, we’re now confident in seeking a large institutional round of investment towards the end of this year.

What about the food offer - what makes it special?

There are a lot of things that make Tocaya Organica special, but what stands out to me the most is that our offerings are very inclusive. By that I mean that we want everyone to eat with us - vegans, vegetarians, health and wellness aficionados, people who enjoy good-tasting Mexican food, people who are conscious of organic eating, and basically anyone else with food discerning characteristics. We want to create a place where all diners feel at home. One of our biggest differentiators is that our menu starts as 100% vegan, unless the customer decides to add meat or cheese unlike most restaurants where vegans must instead opt out.

How is the food sourced and prepared?

We are an ingredient-forward concept that only wants to bring in and serve food that is as high-quality as it can be. Being environmentally friendly is one of our very top priorities, and the way we source and prepare our food is an example of just that. We have an executive chef at each of our 15 locations, and every single dish is freshly made to order by his team. We feel that this really elevates the dining experience, exhibiting just one of the ways that we stand out amongst our fast-casual competitors.

Tocaya Organica_Black Bean QuinoaBowl +Achiote Chicken

What are the top selling items on your menu?

The Fajita del Rey Bowl is our most popular item. We essentially just infused the fajita concept into a bowl, and people really fell in love with it. Another signature is the Guiltless Gluten-Free Burrito, which features vegan-friendly cauliflower rice, black beans, peppers, jalapeño cabbage, and vegan chipotle crema in a low-carb, gluten-free tortilla. Our tacos are widely popular and are our highest selling items by volume.

What is the design and feel of the interior of your restaurants?

The design, atmosphere and feel of Tocaya Organica is one of its competitive advantages. When you walk into the restaurant and you see the bar, you hear the curated music, you experience the comfortable seating, the real flatware, you automatically think ‘wow this place is also acceptable for dinner,’ which is very unique for the fast-casual space. The attention that we put into the creative, inviting, and energetic atmosphere of our restaurants is what allows Tocaya Organica to have just as much evening business as it does for lunch. You can do take-out, a formal lunch meeting, a happy hour with co-workers, or even a dinner date. The size of our locations varies, but averages around 3,000-3,300 square feet plus patio space, and we welcome approximately 600-800 customers per day in each location, with a 50/50 balance of lunch and dinner business.

What are your immediate plans for expansion?

We opened in Downtown Los Angeles and Toluca Lake, as well as Scottsdale, Arizona in the past two months, and are looking forward to opening a few more locations in 2019, including Del Mar, San Diego and Long Beach in California and Tempe and Biltmore in Arizona. We’re looking at other markets to expand over the next few years including Colorado, Texas, and the East Coast.

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

From a growth standpoint, we project Tocaya Organica owning 70+ locations nationwide in multiple markets. At the same time, a major goal for us is to make an impact on the environment and more directly, people’s lives. As a company and a brand, the environment is the number one issue we want to focus on and ensure that we’re showing up to do better when it matters. We have charitable arm that we’re launching this year, the Tocaya Life Foundation, and we’ll be doing various events and activations in partnership with environment-focused groups to raise further awareness of helping our planet earth.

Would you take the company international?

We’re most definitely looking at international opportunities for Tocaya Organica. We think the concept would be successful abroad throughout Europe and Canada and potentially in some areas throughout South America. We have it on our radar and want to make sure we are ready as a company before we take the leap internationally.

Kerstin Kuhn is a journalist specialising in the US hospitality sector