In an industry with an annual employee turnover rate of 74%, what makes some workers decide to stick around for years or even decades? You’re reading Why We Stay, a regular interview series with longtime staffers that aims to answer this question by learning from those who are living it. Find inspiration from their stories to enhance your company culture and boost retention in your restaurant.
Name and Current Role: Oscar Hernandez, Culinary Director and Master Taquero
Restaurant: Tacombi, Locations Nationwide
Year Joined: 2009 as Employee #1. Tacombi now has a staff of 700!
“Master taquero”: Let’s break down the heartbeat of Oscar Hernandez’s title at Tacombi, the breezy taquería chain that began in New York City more than a decade ago.
A taquero isn’t just a person who works at a taquería. It is the person in charge of quality control over the taco-making. And a master? Well, that means you’re extra in charge of quality control at a taquería. Hernandez, who was the first Tacombi employee back when the company’s only United States imprint was the bus-converted-to-kitchen in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood, now looks over 14 different Tacombi locations across New York, yes, but also in the mid-Atlantic and in Miami Beach.
“When I met Dario Wolos, there weren’t a lot of real taquerías in New York City,” says Hernandez of his 2009 encounter with Tacombi’s founder. “As a Mexican immigrant, I’ve always been looking to represent my culture in the best possible way. And I thought to myself back then ‘What’s better than the combination of a good taco and Mexican hospitality?’” There were many Mexican restaurants in New York city in the late aughts, Hernandez notes, but none that captured that singular vibe of a Mexican taquería. “Taquerías have their own style of dining. There’s no agenda needed. You can go for breakfast, lunch, dinner, before drinks, after drinks, with partners, family. In work clothes. Or you can dress up. Anything goes.”
Before joining Tacombi, Hernandez had been working in a fine-dining restaurant in Tribeca and at his family’s restaurant, Gabriela’s, along with other gigs in New York for the 10 years prior. Tacombi felt like the right change—with the right visibility. “For me, it was the perfect place to be because of the connection to Mexico,” says Hernandez. “It felt great having people not be mad at you because you’re from Mexico, but instead happy because you are.”
Much of that homeland pride for Hernandez, who was born in Guadalajara, comes from not only the sense of community between Tacombi and its guests, but also the broader hospitality community and the bond between Tacombi employees. “On my days off, I often choose another Mexican restaurant to visit, and I talk with the people there.” When he’s not exploring other Mexican restaurants, Hernadez is at home with his dog, Montauk, hosting or playing his guitars, keyboard, and drum set.
At work itself, Hernandez says fellowship is important. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and parts of the city were without electricity, “We went to the original Nolita location and established a community kitchen to feed our coworkers because we couldn’t be open yet,” he explains. “Everything isn’t about a monetary transaction at Tacombi.”
Still, Tacombi—and restaurants–are a business, and Hernandez says that part of Tacombi’s success comes from its ability to create a clear career path for its 700 employees. “It’s important to tell your team, ‘This is how far you can go.’ And ‘We can get you to this level.’ That way people get excited when they know how much they can grow in the company.” The same approach applied to Hernandez himself. “I’ve stayed at Tacombi as long as I have partially because of the amount of growth I’ve been able to have here. I’ve learned so much over the years.”
He is also convinced that showing your coworkers you care about the team and their voice is powerful. “It matters more than anything else,” says Hernandez. “We have an open-door policy with the employees and management: suggestions; things employees are not happy about. We’re always open to listening to this. We grow the way we grow because we get a lot of feedback from our employees. Without them being comfortable with the company, we wouldn’t be able to grow the way we are.”