Try one bite of the alligator sausage taco and you’ll be hooked, and convinced that this quirky place off North 90th is a great addition to the gastronomic cornucopia of the Big O. Voodoo Taco, the idea of restaurateur Eric Newton, offers fresh, far-out ingredients in its soft tacos, served up in an eye-catching casual dining environment, all which came to life in part thanks to help from the SBA.
“We do a lot of spices,” explained Newton, a self-described “foodie” who worked with his kitchen chef to come up with an eclectic menu: Asadero cheese from Europe on a steak faijita, Cajun-battered shrimp, a Korean short rib selection with spicy Jicama slaw, and for the kids, a deep-fried banana and peanut butter taco. For the brave (or foolhardy), try the one with habaneros, Ghost chilies and the Trinidad scorpion pepper. Ouch. Stick around for the double-chocolate, salted caramel, chipotle-bacon brownie desert taco. On tap at the bar are local and regional brews, and there also are freshly-squeezed craft cocktails.
Voodoo Taco makes everything fresh, using locally-sourced vegetables, and provides vegan and gluten-free delights, too. But don’t expect to find an ordinary ground beef taco here, they say, proudly.
“I’m trying to avoid being pigeon-holed,” Newton explained. “We’re not trying to be a copy of anything else. We want people to try the new stuff. And the great thing is they can get it here for the same cost of a taco at a chain.”
To try out the concept, before they opened in the middle of August, Newton and his business partner, Steven Cartwright, flung the doors open to their family, friends, and other merchants in the neighborhood to test their unique fare—and to check out the remodeled décor.
“It all started with the name,” Cartwright said of their off-beat approach. “There’s nothing traditional here.”
“I want people to come here and talk about my tacos,” Newton insisted. “Not what the place looks like.” It’s hard not to.
Newton tracked down a guy who tagged the outside of a downtown barber shop with bright, swirling lettering, a guy who used to do his sketchy personalized art on the sides of railroad cars. He had the guy decorate the top of one wall with the restaurant name in graffiti scrawl punctuated with the place’s logo: a voodoo doll head with jaunty top hat. They tore up the old brown-stained tile to discover to their delight polished concrete underneath, which Newton promptly suggested they paint deep purple to go with the gothic chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.
“We didn’t have an interior designer, no blueprint on how to make this place,” Newton said.
They grabbed scraps from the corrugated roof of an old barn to serve as table dividers, and panels behind the bar and order station came from tossed out shipping pallets (and let’s just say the signs on the restroom doors are a must-see).
Newton brought his experience in his 20s to opening the restaurant; at 21, he was waiting tables at a place, and boldly buttonholed the owner to offer some ideas on how to run it. Impressed, the owner quickly made him the general manager. And opening a new place is just another challenge to this Navy veteran who spent Desert Storm refueling planes aboard an aircraft carrier.
It was as a consultant that one day Newton ran into Cartwright.
“I was pitching my plan all over town,” Newton said, “but they’d all have their preconceived notions of what a restaurant should be. Steve said let’s run with it. He’s got the financial background, and I’ve got the idea for the look, the feel and the menu, so you could say we each found our niche.”
Like every new business, there were challenges to overcome: a lack of proven success in the market, and a location in a strip mall that already had a restaurant or two go under with fierce competition from nearby chains. In the end, they’d convinced a local bank to help back their project.
“We had principals that had an excellent business plan, good experience and were sound financially,” explained Ron Baumert, vice president/business banking at Centennial Bank. “However, since there was no real estate involved in the transaction, the deal lacked sufficient tangible assets to provide collateral coverage for the amount of financing that was requested.”
Thanks to the approval July 24, 2013, of an SBA Small Loan Advantage guarantee, the bank got the level of comfort it needed to do the deal, and Voodoo Taco got the financing it needed for needed leasehold improvements and working capital.
According to Newton’s market research, during the recession growth for full-service restaurants slowed to six percent, while fast casual dining—where you order at a counter, then take a seat for your meal to be delivered--grew at a rate of twice that. He also believed the nearby retailers and heavy traffic along the four-lane street would bring in consistent foot traffic.
Newton has eagerly embraced social media marketing for Voodoo Taco, creating a presence on Facebook, and the online review sites Yelp and Urban Spoon, as well as engaged the often-harshly honest community on Reddit for its support.
“That all plays perfectly with what we’re trying to do with the personality of the place,” Cartwright added.