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Breaking Ground on a Budget

Local entrepreneurs are scaling back to get new ideas off the ground
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Opening a business is obviously a huge undertaking, but in Tahoe, the barrier to entry is even higher. Rent is high, good help is hard to find (and keep), and the customer base fluctuates with the seasons. Some clever local business owners have found a way around these obstacles, however, opting instead to share retail space, operate on an adjusted schedule, or pop up for limited engagements. These entrepreneurs have found success by bending the rules and changing the norms of what it means to run a business.

Tacos Herrera

Tacos Herrera may have just made their mark on Tahoe this past summer, but their signature recipe — they only serve one type of taco — has deep roots. Fernando Herrera, who owns the taqueria with his sister, Isabel, said that his father, José, developed the recipe more than 40 years ago in Mexico. His father owned a meat shop, and his unfettered access to all cuts of meat led him to begin experimenting, and eventually develop the beef cheek taco recipe that Donner Lake frequenters now line up for twice a week.

When Fernando and his sister knew they wanted to open a restaurant, they quickly realized that finding an affordable location would be challenging in Tahoe. Then Isabel saw an online advertisement posted by the owner of Little Truckee Ice Creamery, offering a part time rental of his kitchen. Tacos Herrera opened in April, and it turned out to be the perfect partnership.

“We were going to just make to-go tacos,” Herrera said. “Slowly as time went, people were asking ‘can we sit and eat?" Then people who came for tacos would get ice cream, and people who came for ice cream would get tacos. It was a great idea; we help each other out with customers.”

The business is still in its infancy, but things are going well enough that they will stay open through the winter, maintaining the Monday and Friday schedule. Fernando said the upside to their arrangement is that the risk of being new business owners is much lower for them than had they taken over an entire space requiring a full schedule and staff. For now, they can rely on the help of their sizable and very involved family, who trade time boxing up tacos and steaming tortillas for a hearty plate of the beloved family recipe.

Bluefish Poke

Raw fish … from a liquor store? That was the first thought for many when they saw Bluefish Poke open in Sips liquor store in Tahoe City this past June.

“The funny thing is, in Hawai'i it’s completely common,” said owner Lorne Calhoun. “That’s where you get your poke, at the back of the local market or gas station.”

Calhoun has owned Sips for five years, but said he and his wife wanted to branch out into food service and create a new “fast, casual, and tasty” option for Tahoe City. Lorne said his wife, Michiko, is Japanese and has a passion for making sushi and fish. Choosing to serve poke bowls was the perfect outlet for her to expand on her culinary experience and create a unique offering for the area.

Bluefish gives customers a completely customizable experience, starting with a base of rice or greens, followed by your choice of a variety of fish, meat, or tofu, finished with a long list of possible toppings, from veggies to sauces. The growth they’ve seen has been “100 percent word-of-mouth,” Calhoun said.

He says location and staffing are the toughest parts of running a business in Tahoe. To keep good workers, Calhoun believes in providing his staff with the same hours year round, rather than fluctuating schedules seasonally, even if it means he loses money in fall and spring. So, by utilizing Sips’ building and staff in creating Bluefish, they made efficient use of their existing resources, a unique advantage that put them ahead of where most new businesses have to begin.

A Dragonfly Reborn

Billy McCullough may have sold his Truckee restaurant Dragonfly four years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s left the culinary world behind. After 13 years on the daily grind of being a restaurant chef and owner, McCullough has found continued success in an array of food-related projects. He consults with restaurants on everything from menu development to décor. He partnered with a friend that organizes outdoor corporate retreats and gets to cook for those groups in epic locales like Yosemite. And, he still brings his favorite dishes to hungry crowds in Truckee. McCullough hosted a noodle bowl pop-up at Alibi Ale Works’ Truckee Public House last March, during which he sold 500 meals in just a few hours. It was such a success he will be hosting a similar event on Oct. 25.

“It’s a great way to be creative and not have the stress of the overhead and staff and all that stuff,” McCullough said of his many endeavors.

Looking at the current local restaurant industry, he is sometimes envious for the business potential that exists now in what he describes as a strong economy in the area. But McCullough also knows the toll that lifestyle has on a person. He said he didn’t realize how draining it was, not only for him but for his family, until he got out.

“You’re beholden to so many things not in your control; the weather, the labor pool,” McCullouh said. “It’s tough especially in an area where it’s challenging to live. You can only charge so much for food, but it’s hard for workers to live off $14 to $15 per hour.”

He knows that his reputation in the community has helped him find success on an atypical path, but he does think that there are opportunities for food entrepreneurs who are willing to think outside the box, and who have a different product to bring the community.

“What I feel Truckee lacks is diversity in types of food, and that’s where other chefs and businesses could start in this pop-up world,” McCullough said.

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February 14, 2019