Brad Holtzman, a partner and the general manager of the gluten-free restaurant, Taquitoria, on New York City’s Lower East Side, is relatively new to the gluten-free community.
Still, he thinks he understands what gluten-free diners want. “They just want to eat good food,” he says to explain what he has learned about the gluten-free community since Taquitoria opened.
Holtzman and his partners, Barry Frish, the restaurant’s Culinary Director, and Matthew Conway, are bringing taquitos- rolled and fried tacos – to a diverse clientele of New Yorkers that includes those on the gluten-free diet. The restaurant also serves what Holtzman describes as “the rowdy crowd,” who frequent Taquitoria on Fridays and Saturdays when it’s open until 4:00 a.m.
When the trio set out to open a restaurant, one of their goals was to introduce taquitos, a San Diego specialty, to New Yorkers. They knew that gluten-free diners are always looking to find a new spot. Holtzman, in particular, was well aware of gluten-free needs from working at other establishments. “A day wouldn’t go by without there being some sort of special request or eating restriction or severe allergy,” he explains.
So the restaurateurs made a conscientious decision to be gluten free. All of Taquitoria’s taquitos are made with corn tortillas and the ingredients were kept simple. Nothing unnecessary was added. “We’re hoping to provide a fresh product for people in need of a gluten-free dining option,” Holtzman says.
On the last day of winter, I headed downtown to Ludlow Street to find out what a typical day is like for Holtzman. I arrived at 4:00 p.m., just as he was preparing to open the restaurant.
What time do you wake up?
I wake up at 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 when I’m lucky.
What’s for breakfast?
In the winter I have espresso.
What do you do before the restaurant opens?
My workday starts no later than 11:00 a.m. when I start getting the restaurant ready.
We basically have two businesses here. We have a restaurant and we also run a full-fledged catering business. Both of these businesses require a lot of hands on work, a lot of organization, attention to detail and communication.
What are your responsibilities during business hours?
I maintain the image of our restaurant, keep the peace, answer food questions, allergy questions and describe what a taquito is. Without realizing it, we opened a restaurant where half of our New York food population doesn’t even know what a taquito is.
I’ll do anything from cooking taquitos to mopping the floor to counting the register to taking your order to making deliveries on a bike, by foot, whatever it takes.
How many taquitos do you eat a day?
I limit myself to 10 taquitos a week in an effort to not look like a taquito.
How many taquitos do you sell each day?
It varies, but anywhere from 500 to 1,000.
Does your patronage change throughout the day?
Absolutely. And it changes throughout the week.
Earlier in the day, we certainly have a neighborhood feel. We have built really nice relationships with most of the people who live and walk by here on Ludlow Street. We have finally mastered the art of the half-wave so you don’t actually have to say hello four different times a day.
Fridays and Saturdays, we sell a majority of the taquitos at night. If we really had to, we could open the doors at midnight and just stay open for five hours. After midnight on the weekends, people are hungry and want a good, inexpensive dining option. The taquitos are three for $5. (More info about the restaurant is available here.)
What’s surprising about your day?
It always surprises me how our food can impress anyone even the most savvy food professionals. It’s just as satisfying to us to be able to feed a 20-year-old at four in the morning as it is to feed an executive chef or head sommelier from a fine restaurant. We knew they would like it, but to this extent it still blows us away.
What’s the last thing you do at the restaurant?
As we finish mopping the floor and counting the register, we play a song called Runaway by Pusha T and Kanye West. It just organically became a “thing.” We all play the air-piano together during the intro. Afterwards, we finish up, we lock up and leave.
What time does your workday end?
At the latest, 4:30 in the morning. I get home from work, and frequently I see people on the way to work.
How has managing this restaurant changed you?
Obviously I expected a lack of sleep and free time. The ability to connect with people over something as simple as an order of taquitos is definitely unexpected. The look on people’s faces when they taste our product honestly makes me feel good inside.
Also, leading a staff, some of whom are younger and some of whom are older than I am, is new. I never had the opportunity in this industry to be in a leadership position. Now having the opportunity to lead a staff every night feels great. We rally around each other and have each other’s backs and work really hard to go shoulder to shoulder until the finish line at the end of the day.
What have you learned from managing a gluten-free restaurant?
I have learned that you can really make somebody’s day. We make the day for people who are often told. “No.” I’ve seen this many different times, but one case in particular stands out.
A couple walked into the restaurant at around 11:00 p.m. on a weekend. They were looking at the menu, then turned around and started to walk out. I interjected, “May I please help you with anything. Do you have any questions?” They both told me and I quote, “Oh, we can’t eat here. I’m so sorry. We recently both went gluten free.”
I looked at them and I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, our entire restaurant is gluten free.” They looked at me like I was joking or lying to them. And then I said, “I promise, I will show you every product we use in house. We use yellow corn tortillas and there isn’t flour anywhere.”
They were blown away. They shared an order of five taquitos, went out to the bars and came back later that night and each ordered another order of five.
There aren’t many restaurants at this price point with this quality of food where someone who has celiac disease, someone who is vegan and a fraternity guy coming home from the bars can enjoy the same dining experience.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Guest blogger Susan Cohen regularly writes the New for You column for Gluten-Free Living and also contributes to the In the Mix column.