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Tacos and a salad bowl to-go from Tacomio in North Vancouver on Dec. 15.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

North Vancouver’s Tacomio is lit up by signage that uses an ornately decorated skull, or Mexican calvera, as its logo. But the bronze camel outside the restaurant’s front door might be more symbolic of its current plight.

The Lady, a life-sized sculpture by artist Myfanwy MacLeod, pays homage to a bizarre footnote in British Columbia’s history, circa 1862, when entrepreneurial prospectors imported two dozen camels to hump supplies up the treacherously steep and narrow Cariboo Trail. The short-lived experiment was an epic failure, in part because the crotchety camels smelled so foul that the other pack animals would startle and bolt, many falling to their deaths.

Today, The Lady gazes out across Lonsdale Avenue where a new Chipotle Mexican Grill will soon open as the ground-floor anchor tenant for a purpose-built rental apartment building owned by Hollyburn Properties.

Tacomio is a small family-owned business that fought tooth and nail to survive the pandemic (its North Vancouver location was closed for eight months) and is still struggling.

Chipotle, the highest-grossing fast-casual chain restaurant in the United States, boomed during the pandemic and is now aggressively expanding into Canada.

The two restaurants on opposite corners of 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue will offer menus that are nearly identical.

Hollyburn Properties, which is ostensibly doing a good thing by bringing badly needed rental housing to the market, was presumably burned by Starbucks, the original leaseholder, when it pulled back its Canadian presence.

Central Lonsdale is a rapidly densifying neighbourhood that deserves a healthy mix of retail shops and restaurants, not a David and Goliath faceoff on one of its main intersections.

The Lady might have stirred up controversy when she was unveiled in 2017, but the public art has now earned its place and gained new meaning. Because whichever way you look at it, this situation stinks.

“I understand that it’s a free market and I know Chipotle is expanding, but it’s kind of weird that they’re opening right across from us,” Tacomio owner Fhernando Llanas says by phone. “It’s such a big corporation. They could kill us.”

Mr. Llanas, a former sous chef at the Vancouver Club, opened his first Tacomio in Gastown, in 2015, offering high-quality tacos, burritos, nachos and salad bowls made with authentic Mexican flavours, handmade tortillas and locally sourced proteins.

They relocated to the University of British Columbia four years later, followed by a commissary kitchen with a takeout window in Strathcona and North Vancouver.

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Tacomio sells pantry items such as rice, beans, and hot sauce.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

The fast-casual enterprise is a family affair. Mr. Llanas’s mother works in the kitchen and tests all new recipes. His sister takes photographs for the website and social media; her fiancé is a silent partner.

When the pandemic hit, they shut down the UBC and North Vancouver locations, gave $70,000 worth of perishables to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and pivoted to takeout from the Strathcona kitchen.

They were one of the first taco shops to offer family style taco kits, which travel better, are generously sized and very affordable (initially $25 for two people).

To provide customers peace of mind, they invested in new packaging with tamper-free safety seals. Every takeout order comes with a hand-signed thank-you note.

To make ends meet, they began selling bottled spices, house-made salsas and other specialty grocery items.

Like many restaurants, they are still short-staffed. “We are currently training several new crew members. … Please be kind and patient,” reads a notice in the front window at the North Vancouver restaurant, where customers apparently have shorter fuses and more complaints.

And to generate more business, they launched a number of trendy new dishes – cheese-skirted birria tacos with rich consommé on the side, premium ribeye carne asada and really terrific, humongous portions of beer-battered Pacific wild cod.

The new items, available only from the Strathcona kitchen, have been wildly popular. And when they reopened the North Vancouver shop (still takeout only) they considered installing a new HVAC system to accommodate a fryer and larger kitchen line.

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Tacomio owner Fhernando Llannas at his North Vancouver location.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Says Mr. Llanas: “We’d love to have a similar menu in North Vancouver, but the venting will cost $150,000 and if we don’t survive, well ... maybe we’ll wait a few months until Chipotle opens and see what happens.”

Chipotle, although now a sharp-toothed behemoth with nearly 3,000 locations, has a similar origin story. The Denver-based company was founded as a single restaurant near a university by a fine-dining chef, Steve Ells, who wanted to create better tacos using whole foods and fresh ingredients.

Despite an unfortunate series of food-poisoning outbreaks, Chipotle is widely considered a good corporate citizen and excellent employer that supports sustainable farmers and provides debt-free degrees through its best-in-class benefits program.

Prior to the pandemic, the company leaned heavily into digital innovations, including its mobile-order drive-thru Chipotlanes, which served it extremely well when indoor dining was put on pause. In the fourth quarter of 2020, digital sales grew 177 per cent, total revenue increased 11.6 per cent to US$1.6-billion and the company opened 61 new restaurants.

Some reports characterized the growth as opportunistic profiteering. “Fast-food giants like Dunkin’ and Chipotle are using the restaurant apocalypse as a chance to ‘swallow up’ independent restaurants that are struggling to survive the pandemic,” read one headline in Business Insider.

When asked about its rationale for opening a new Canadian restaurant in such close proximity to a small, eerily similar local competitor, Anat Davidzon, managing director of Canada for Chipotle, sent an anodyne, boilerplate reply:

“Given the rising popularity of Chipotle’s real food in Canada, we believe there is a large growth opportunity in this market. Consistent with our mission to cultivate a better world, we’re excited to bring our passion for community and the environment, along with our commitment to fresh and responsibly sourced food with integrity to the Vancouver community … "

Hollyburn Properties director David Sander declined to comment.

Most development companies have internal bylaws preventing the cannibalization of fellow tenants. But when it comes to competition across the street, landlords are free to do whatever they want.

Although some forward-looking cities such as San Francisco have adopted policies to limit “formula retail” (that is, large chains) in neighbourhood commercial districts, there are no such restrictions here.

Still, “there are your market developers and then there are your smart developers,” says Andy Yan, director of the City Program at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, who addressed (but did not endorse) the San Francisco model in a recent retail-commercial small-business study for the City of Vancouver.

“Smart developers have sense of curation and community building,” he says, pointing to the Westbank’s recent alliance with Kitchen Table Group and the small independent restaurants (Linh Café, Autostrada, Ça Marche Crêperie) in Vancouver House.

Mr. Yan doesn’t see Tacomio’s situation as hopeless.

“Remember when Starbucks opened on Commercial Drive? Everyone thought it would be the Death Star that killed Italian café culture. I don’t remember a single one of those small cafés closing. If anything, we saw an expansion.

“My money’s on Tacomio. I bet it will hold its own.”

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