Small Business Focus: With Taylor’s Tacos, West Coast Street Food finds the West Side Community

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Taylor Mason, left, and Maya Mason lead Taylor’s Tacos, a student in the Small Business Growth Program.

After returning home from California to Chicago, Taylor Mason lost her Los Angeles streetcar everywhere. He would occasionally catch a scent thanks to a guy who would occasionally put a grill on the sidewalk of Wicker Park, drawing a line of hungry patrons spreading down the block.

“The iron was hot, embedded in your plate,” Mason said. “You could see the food being prepared in front of you.”

This eagerness inspired him to launch Mason Taylor’s Tacos, which he runs with his wife, Maya Mason. The company, a student in the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program, has a catering service, a taco truck and event space. But it also has a broader mission.

Born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, Mason understands what it’s like to live in a food desert. As the Taco business grows, it hopes to open up its hospitality and retail space in a community that still calls it home.

“I have to make the West Side great again,” said Mason, who lives in Douglas Park.

Mason did not announce a career in tacos when he moved to California, taking a full basketball scholarship to Pepperdine University. He studied broadcast journalism at Malibu School and planned to work behind the camera in Hollywood.

But as she approached college in 2010, her mother suffered a spinal cord aneurysm (which is now fine). At his father’s request, Mason moved home to Chicago, leaving his job on the West Coast.

“That was the hardest but easiest decision I had to make,” Mason said.

He worked in his family business, NBU Athletics, an organization that teaches young people the basics of basketball, for five years as chief operating officer. But he was not a fan of the dynamics of family businesses and wanted something different.

While doing his homework (gym teacher, basketball coach) Mason continued to return to the long-held love of meeting people.

He organized a party and made tacos, inspired by a Wicker Park street vendor. They were successful, and for the next two years he was working on improving the recipe for “whole-souled street tacos.”

When he met Maya in 2016, the passion project became an informal business. Maya, who at the time worked as a restaurant waitress, grew up in a food-focused home – both her parents went to French cooking school and her mother was an heir gardener – and she was thrilled with the potential.

In 2018, both Taylor and Maya Mason left work full-time to build Taylor’s Tacos.

The business specializes in pop-up catering: appearing at events and performing live tacos, some of which are unique tours of tradition such as salmon, asparagus and portobello mushroom tacos. When the pandemic broke out and the events were canceled, the masons began offering taco dishes, nacho bars and meals.

They also opened an event space called Taylored, 2451 S. Oakley Ave., because they learned through catering that event spaces are in high demand. A large 1,400-square-foot storefront designed to give “a little bit of Los Angeles” sells tacos to the public on Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m.

“That added a new side to our business that we wouldn’t have without a pandemic,” Mason said. “We went from earning $ 7,000 a year to more than $ 400,000 in sales.”

Mason also created a non-profit, Tacos Create Community, which brings together a taco experience that people would not otherwise enjoy. He organized a Tacos and Tea program with Project sWish and now collaborates with the Above and Beyond food restaurant.

Mason connected to the Polsky Center through the Neighborhood Entrepreneurship Lab, a nine-month virtual accelerator for entrepreneurs around Chicago. She participated in the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program in the fall of 2021, where a group of UChicago students helped her prepare a marketing plan.

“The most helpful thing was to have a team where you could translate ideas,” Mason said. “Having people from different backgrounds who can give you feedback has really made me realize how important it is to bring together different types of people in our team.”

It’s now a six-person group, and from the kitchen at The Hatchery, in the East Garfield Park food incubator, Taylor’s Tacos is looking for bigger excavations as it receives more orders than it can handle. The bricklayers are exploring West Side real estate with the intention of opening their own catering kitchen to buy tacos for the public with limited hours, and plan to bottle up their sauce, make their own tortillas and franchise the business along the way.

Through her adventures in entrepreneurship, Taylor Mason has learned that the key to pursuing these goals is dry but essential: following the rules and setting the necessary paperwork, licensing, and insurance.

“Be prepared to be ready when the opportunity arises,” he said.

Article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Associate Director of Media Relations and External Communications at the Polsky Center. A longtime journalist, Alexia recently became a business journalist at the Chicago Tribune. Get through Alexia email or Twitter @alexiaer.

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