From fry cook of a fast-food chicken joint to king of a Texas taco empire, Michael Rypka may have moved up the ranks quickly, but it was not always an easy climb. Rypka started Torchy’s Tacos with little more than a dream and a used trailer, back before food trucks were cool. Even when his chips (and salsa) were down in the early days, his hard work, people skills, and culinary intuitions have grown Torchy’s into a fast-casual haven of taco goodness, with plenty of expansion on the horizon.
THE FIRST VISION OF HIS FUTURE
Rypka’s beginnings were about as humble as humble gets in the food world. “I’ve been in the restaurant business pretty much since I was thirteen,” he told Sam Oches, Editorial Director at Food News Media, in a recent Fast Forward podcast interview. “I was a fry cook at Popeye’s Fried Chicken, worked in some breakfast places. I think when I first sorta caught the bug for, you know, the culinary world, if you will, was [when] I worked at a country club in Springfield, Virginia, which was close to where I grew up right outside of [Washington] D.C.”
The plucky lad met a chef there who took him under his wing as a mentor. After a rocky start, Rypka eventually assisted him with buffets, catering, and special events. He learned quickly and soon earned the title of banquet manager.
When it came time to graduate high school and select a career path, Rypka was not sure if he wanted to take the culinary path. “The restaurant business is a daunting business: lots of hours, lots of weekends, lots of nights.” Instead, Rypka went to school to study counseling. “I like helping people,” he said. “And pretty natural at it.”
But one fortuitous night, he awoke from a deep sleep with the thought, “What am I doing? I should be a chef!” The incident was so jarring, Rypka could not go back to sleep and instead dug through his closet for some culinary pamphlets he remembered collecting back in high school. By morning, he announced to his mother that he was dropping out of school to become a chef!
His mom was slightly less enthused, encouraging him to at least complete the semester he had started. He did just that, and then they began looking at and touring culinary school options.
WELCOME TO MIAMI
After careful consideration, Rypka enrolled at the Johnson & Wales University in North Miami, Florida, which opened only about a year prior. As a kid who grew up right outside of Washington, D.C., Rypka laughed that he was pretty excited about the mild Floridian winters. Additionally, Florida’s culinary scene was cutting edge, with plenty for a young chef to experience. “Culinary school would be one thing,” he said. “But getting my chops was way more important.”
While enrolled, Rypka seemed to take any and every possible experience that came his way. Being in Florida, he was able to experience South Beach Seafood Festival, an event that paved the way for future chef-driven food festivals. During his time in Miami, the city hosted a summit meeting of the Organization of American States which was attended by then-President Clinton. Rypka described himself as the garnish kid. “It was pretty much a blast,” he added. Whatever opportunity or job came his way, Rypka dove in and learned what he could.
Miami solidified Rypka’s love of Latin food. Rypka grew up getting to experience Latin cuisine first hand, visiting his father down in Argentina, in addition to trips to Mexico and Costa Rica. One of his pals from culinary school, a Cuban himself, called Rypka “more Cuban than he was” due to his regular experimentation with plantains.
COOKING IN THE REAL WORLD
Graduation came and went. Rypka faced his future and with plenty of debt, he decided to do the smart thing and head back home for a while. He started applying for jobs right and left, picking up shifts at the country club in the meantime. Rypka even applied for non-culinary jobs, thinking that for once he might get his nights and weekends back! Then he interviewed with Marriott.
Marriott’s corporate program offered plenty of opportunity and locations. He took a job as an assistant manager at the World Bank, an enormous café featuring food from all over the globe and serving breakfast and lunch to between 3,000 and 4,000 people daily on average. The dining area was situated amid thirteen stations, like an upscale food court, each showcasing the cuisine of a different region of the world.
Rypka was working the hospitality side, but it did not take long to get him into the kitchen. When the chef got a promotion, Rypka, at age 22, was asked if he would like to fill the position. He knew how to work hard but with a kitchen staff of 75, most of whom were older and more experienced, he sought advice from a fellow Marriott chef.
However, creating a fun team environment and managing people was certainly in Rypka’s wheelhouse. He enjoyed creating challenges with the team (he admittedly lost some and won others). He spent time getting to know the people with whom he worked, finding out where they were from, and learning about their families.
Shortly after his promotion, Rypka was asked to reinvent the menu, as it was due for an update. According to Rypka, the World Bank was a “no-joke, hardcore food service.” Feeding thousands a day from scratch, employing fourteen dishwashers just to keep up, and offering 52 entrees daily for about a six-week stint before rotating again, Rypka needed to decide on about 600 menu items from all over the world. The new chef suddenly had to grasp the intricacies of food from places like Ethiopia, Morocco, and Thailand. He quickly bought plenty of cookbooks to research.
But his kitchen staff of 75 already represented about 22 countries, so he asked for their help understanding native dishes. The staff commonly responded that they did not know, but they had a grandmother who did! Rypka met with families and took careful notes. Then he added tweaks and twists to the classic dishes, imported authentic ingredients when possible (such as Argentinian beef), and adapted the meals to feed the masses. Soon after, D.C.’s Taste of the Nation made him a featured chef at their charitable event. There was no turning back.
Still chasing those mild winters and always having dreamed of exploring the West Coast, Rypka’s next endeavor took him to California. Still with Marriott, he became the executive chef at MTV in Santa Monica. While there, he worked in other Marriott units for Walt Disney Animation Studios and Interscope Records. By age 24, he was a culinary trainer for the company.
A call from Enron, a huge Marriott account, brought him to Texas. Rypka checked out the city of Houston, interviewed, and landed what seemed to be a great opportunity. Four months later, however, Enron crashed, and its culinary offerings went down with the massive ship. Fortunately, Marriott had a spot for him as executive chef at Dell Computers, so Rypka moved to Austin.
After about two years, Rypka felt it was time for a change. He went to work for a little Tex-Mex company called Chuy’s. They had purchased a large lakefront property that seated about 500 and wanted to do something unique with it. But the success at that location was just not in the cards.
“Enough is enough,” Rypka thought. By this time, he was 32, childless, and single. There was nothing standing in the way of putting all his energy into chasing his own dreams. He had two main priorities: (1) he wanted to go into business on his own and build his own thing, and (2) his endeavor would somehow involve street food.
Rypka had always enjoyed exploring new places, asking locals for recommendations, and trying delicious local cuisine at a tiny hole-in-the-wall. “Street food” often conjures up images of hawker stalls, with loud sellers, hungry crowds, and the combined heat of the outdoors and the cooktops. Nowadays, it is usually sold from carts or trucks, but this was before the food truck movement. Rypka became an early pioneer of the “gourmet street food” concept in Texas.
THE TORCHY’S TRUCK
Rypka had a friend who was selling a trailer he had received from his grandfather. At the time, no one was “doing food trucks;” loncheras, traditional taco trucks that had been around since the 1960s, were mostly found at construction sites and gas stations. His friend, Bill, thought Rypka was crazy, but he was game for such shenanigans. The pair started eating all the tacos they could find, visiting local dives on a food research tour. Rypka said that while he ate tons of great tacos, “they were all pretty much the same.”
So Rypka decided to do something totally different, reminiscent of his days reworking the native recipes handed down to him by proud grandmothers from around the world. He took the basic idea of a taco, starting with the tortilla base, and just had fun with it. He planned to push the boundaries of what makes a taco a taco! However, to truly consider his business a taco joint, he would, of course, keep some of the staples: fajitas, barbacoa, and green chiles.
Torchy’s opened in 2006. It was Rypka and a single cook in a food trailer in Texas’s August heat. No one wanted to invest in a trained and successful chef turned food truck operator. Early on, Rypka roamed the streets near the food truck’s location on Austin’s South First Street, handing out breakfast tacos to commuters to drum up interest. He scooted around town on his red Vespa, walked into office buildings and businesses with free chips and salsa. Occasionally, a catering order would keep the business afloat financially for another few weeks. His first two years were spent barely making ends meet, sometimes working 100 hours in a week.
Eventually, the tide began to turn. One fall, Rypka set up a pumpkin patch in the trailer park out of which he operated, not knowing that a pumpkin shortage that year would draw in plenty of locals. While they visited, Rypka offered them Torchy’s samples. Word spread and the rest is history.
THE FUTURE LOOKS DELICIOUS
Not long after, word spread about the yummy and unconventional tacos Rypka was serving up, and he was able to open his first brick-and-mortar location. Locations have been opening ever since! Fast forward a decade (give or take) and to say that Torchy’s has found success in Texas and beyond is somewhat of an understatement. Rypka’s positive attitude, work ethic, and relentless dedication created a company culture of commitment, consistency, quality, and (from what it appears on the outside) fun.
His tacos are still making headlines. Back in 2017, Torchy’s experienced a full-circle moment, opening their first sports stadium location in Minute Maid Park, formerly known as Enron Field. The Airstream Salad made its debut on the menu that year as well.
While the salad addition was popular, it is Rypka’s first Taco of the Month (and now a menu staple synonymous with the Torchy’s dining experience) that continues to claim the number one spot in terms of sales: the Trailer Park. The Taco of the Month program offers guests a special, limited-time offer of a unique taco creation, and a portion from their sales are given to charitable partners such as Phoenix House, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Torchy’s also strives to be environmentally friendly. Cutlery, cups, and napkins are created using renewable resources and vegetable oil waste is reused as transportation fuel. Gluten-free items and nutritional information are available for those with special dietary needs. And in terms of convenience, Torchy’s recently partnered exclusively with DoorDash.
G.J. Hart came on board the company (now Success Foods Management Group, LLC) in January 2018. Even before Torchy’s, Hart was an incredible inspiration in the fast-casual realm, having spent over a quarter-century in the higher echelons of food management, serving as chief executive officer of big-name players like California Pizza Kitchen and Texas Roadhouse. His goal is to take Torchy’s to its next level as a company. Hart stated, “Torchy’s is a unique and dynamic brand with a talented leadership team and team members whose success is anchored by a strong culture that can’t be matched in the fast-casual space.”
In the next five years, Hart plans to expand that success exponentially, with a goal of locations in seventeen states, increasing the number of units from over 70 to 165! Fayetteville became Arkansas’s first location in August 2019; Wichita, Kansas is set to open summer 2020; and nineteen other locations are in the works this year. Never fear, Texans; local growth continues as well. The Austin metroplex just welcomed its seventeenth location.
Rypka shared about his success, “Always hire people that are better than you.” He acknowledged that he was very fortunate to have gained experience in various facets of food management, something he encourages culinary entrepreneurs to likewise do. Bartending, serving, cashiering, and washing dishes, Rypka understands every intricate detail and position within his business.
Looking back at his humble beginnings in the trailer, Rypka told Oches, “I was passionate about [Torchy’s] and when you are passionate about something, it is hard to keep yourself from doing it.” And the tacos are still damn good.