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August 27, 2021

The Purpose-Driven Mission of Pilo’s Street Tacos

Growing up, Derek Gonzalez would spend his summers in Mexico City playing soccer, and while there, he developed a love for authentic street tacos. Later, while working in the finance world, the idea of opening a restaurant that served the fresh tacos of his youth began to gnaw at him. As a side project, he spent a couple years traveling on weekends to sample different tacos and flesh out the idea.

When it came time to pull the trigger, Gonzalez knew that the concept would bear his Aunt Pilo’s name and that its mission would go beyond serving tacos. He wanted the restaurant to employ people who, like Pilo, had developmental disabilities. Today, the umbrella brand comprises fast casual Pilo’s Street Tacos and a sit-down restaurant Pilo’s Tacos & Tequila bar, both in Miami. In July, limited-time pop-up Pilo’s Beach House debuted in the tequila garden, with special cocktails and live music events.

In addition to aggressive expansion plans, Gonzalez wants Pilo’s to be the largest employer of people with special abilities. Although the hospitality sector hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced hiring such employees, he knows they bring much to the table.

How did Pilo’s start?

I really enjoy all different types of food, but my personal favorite is authentic street tacos. There’s still a special place in my heart for Tex-Mex, but I knew that if I ever had a taco place, I’d want it to be more like the style in Mexico, where it’s fresh-made.

For two years, I flew from Tijuana and San Diego to Chicago, New York, the Carolinas, and Texas. I went to all the Mexican street taco locations, and I started doing my due diligence research: what worked, what didn’t, what I liked. I didn’t want to do a chef-driven concept because I just feel like concepts like that are very singular; I wanted to do something for the masses. We deliver pretty quickly so sometimes we’re typecast as a fast-food place, but I can assure you we’re not. We don’t have a freezer because we make everything from scratch.

The idea sparked because of my craving for Mexican food, but then it became more about the mission. The reason I wanted to expand, the reason I left a very good job in finance, was to continue the employment of people with special abilities. I wanted my company to be an integration of two different worlds, where it’s OK that your hostess has a special ability, whether it be physical or internal, from autism to cerebral palsy to Down syndrome. I knew that it would be difficult, but people with special abilities make up the largest minority in North America, and they’re the least employed in hospitality. I didn’t really set out to do this; we just kind of took it up. It became the mission, and I’m really proud of it.

How does the business model work?

The idea is that a percentage of each location will hire individuals with special abilities throughout the country. I partnered with organizations that are not-for-profit and provide me with employees with special abilities, from Our Pride Academy locally to Best Buddy International and GiGi’s Playhouse. There are families in every neighborhood throughout the country with someone who may have a special ability. When they put that on their resume, it can be a deterrent, whereas I look at it as a plus.

The name of your concept and the mission behind it are both in honor of your aunt. How did she influence you?

She was such a pillar of my foundation from the day I was born to my wedding, where she was the flower girl, to the last couple of years of her life. I was actually creating Pilo’s when she was still alive. She lived a very long and healthy life. She was an awesome cook and never left the kitchen. She was also surrounded by a good environment. People like Pilo need that; they are fully capable of doing so many things; there just aren’t enough opportunities out there. That fueled my passion to see this through and hopefully, one day, be the largest for people with special abilities in the country.

What do these employees bring to the restaurant?

The excitement and the energy they bring is exceptional. First of all, there’s no other motive for them to be there; they’re not thinking about what they’re going to do on Friday or what Gucci bag they’re going to buy with their paycheck. Their focus is being there and having fun, and that’s the culture and environment. I want people who come to Pilo’s and work there to be part of the Pilo’s family experience. One employee, Omar, started with me right when I opened, and he’s been with me for three and a half years. He has such a positive attitude, and the guy’s a rock star. He takes orders on our POS system, and he could probably do inventory. That just shows you the potential of an individual who was given an opportunity.

Have you developed special training to onboard these team members?

We have a Pilo’s University, which is our training development and management development program. So if you come to us with a special ability or are just an individual who’s looking to advance their career, you can do that, and there are different growth paths. There’s obviously a training manual that we adhere to, and we have great staff that are happy to train all sorts of individuals. Also the organizations I mentioned earlier tend to have a buddy program. They actually come with their buddy and transition them into the role that they’ve been hired to do.

What does growth look like for Pilo’s?

It’s a hub-and-spoke model. Pilo’s Tacos & Tequila Garden would kind of be my flagship in different cities, like Nashville, [Tennessee], Austin, [Texas], Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York. I would aim for 20–25 locations of the tequila garden and close to 1,000 for Pilo’s Street Tacos. I’m hiring an average of 4–5 individuals per store, so if I can get to 1,000 stores within five or six years, I’ll reach my goal of 5,000 employees with special abilities.

There are going to be three new locations in South Florida, and we have two more [tentative locations] on the East Coast in very iconic locations. These will be corporate-owned stores that I’ll be personally running with my management team. Obviously, it’s really difficult to grow to 1,000 locations, so I have opportunities with strategic partners that are already in hospitality and really love the mission.

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DAMIAN DENIDO
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