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The Full Story

How Far We’ve Come

Tacos El Azteca was born out of Juan Martinez yearning for a taste of home. Juan moved to the Northeast as a 17-year-old and spent the next 25 years cooking in Italian and French kitchens. Without many Hispanic restaurants in the area, Juan had two choices when it came to satiating his appetite for Mexican food: drive 45 minutes to the taco trucks on Long Wharf in New Haven or make it himself. His wife, Nancy, says he’s borderline prophetic.

“He always said he was going to own his own business, specifically a taco truck. I kept telling him he was crazy, that it costs a lot of money, and we can’t afford that”.

Nancy’s the accountant and the realist in the family. Still, when Juan considered selling a Mexican-style ceviche, reminiscent of what he would eat in his hometown Gomez Palacio, in the State of Durango, out of his car on the weekends, she pushed him to follow through. Here was a chance to see if her husband’s food was good enough for him to take a chance on his dream. Unlike traditional ceviche, Juan leaves out the punchiness of the ginger, layers in heat from Mexican chilis, and adds sweetness reminiscent of a classic shrimp cocktail. Nobody else was making anything quite like it.

What followed was months of Juan working 70-hour weeks as a sous-chef before spending the weekend preparing and selling ceviche. He sold them at soccer fields in Stamford, churches in Norwalk and even made home deliveries for as little as two orders of ceviche to New Haven. At $10 per order, the New Haven orders barely covered the gas money for the hour and a half round-trip. At this point in the business, profiting on each sale didn’t matter. Juan focused on entrenching himself in not only his customers’ stomachs but their hearts as well. He became a person they could rely on — some for a taste of home, others for something novel and delicious.

For a family obsessed with soccer, the tipping point for the business serendipitously came at an exhibition game when the Mexican National team was in town. Juan sold 100 ceviches in a half-hour — in restaurant lingo, here was proof that the business now had legs. His customers were telling him that his food was good enough to garner a following. Here was a genuine opportunity to work for himself, share his food culture with his adopted home, and, most importantly, build something for his family.
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Juan retreats slightly from his exuberant demeanor when he shares how important it was to spend time with his family. He missed many holidays while working in restaurants and would often have to call home, telling Nancy and the kids that he wouldn’t be home in time to open the presents or celebrate without him.

“We sacrificed a lot. I would come home to see Nancy or the kids crying, and it hurt. But I knew I needed to work, for them,” said Juan, with no regret but a heavy heart. The restaurant industry is brutal on families. When families endure, the unspoken heroes are often the ones who hold down the fort at home. Nancy worked a 9–5 day in the Westport school system and was the household rock. Women all over the world manage an unimaginable emotional toll wearing so many hats, and Nancy was no exception. She made sure the kids were well looked after and helped them understand why Juan wasn’t home, what he was doing for the family. Juan sacrificed time at home to take care of his family, while Nancy sacrificed herself to be there for everyone else in her family to keep it together. Juan smiles when Nancy recounts those days — he knows his family and Tacos El Azteca were only possible because of her.

Most people launch head-first into starting food businesses before knowing a customer base exists. Not Juan. He had his customers excited and energized from eating weekend ceviche out of a car. He was lagging, unable to provide them with more. With gumption, their life savings, and Nancy’s unwavering support, Juan quit his day job, bought a truck from someone in their church, and began outfitting Tacos El Azteca.

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Not much fazes Juan Martinez. When he needed to outfit a truck for zoning requirements, health, safety, and fire requirements, he took the challenge head-on. He submitted designs to the city for approval but was repeatedly told no for this or that reason. Most people start questioning themselves when they get rejected three or four times. Juan is unlike most people. “Every time I submitted plans, they’d tell me I was wrong,” says Juan, recounting the brief bouts of deflation he and Nancy would experience before rebounding successfully.

Once the truck was approved, the next challenge was finding a location that fit their personality. Juan and Nancy scouted several spots suggested by the township but didn’t like any of them. That’s when Juan remembered a parking lot he had driven past years ago: the one with dark shuttered buildings across from a gas station. Nancy recalls Juan saying, “I’m going light up this [parking lot]” — and once the truck became a reality, Juan made good on that promise. After negotiating with the owner of the muffler shop and heeding Nancy’s advice on where to park (they’re still there today), Juan finally had the business he’d dreamed of owning after 25 years of working for someone else. Tacos El Azteca was born.

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