Osiris Hoil still remembers the exact time when everything changed: 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in September 2008.
“I was really good at my job, finishing projects on time and under budget. The company was even paying to send me to school, to learn how to read blueprints,” Hoil says of his construction industry position. One afternoon during the worst economic month since the Great Depression, his boss pulled him aside. Hoil had a toddler son, plus a daughter on the way. “After I was laid off,” he says, “I drove my truck to an empty park and cried.”
Yet only a few years later, he hired that same construction firm to build stores for his burgeoning local Mexican food chain empire, District Taco. “Now,” Hoil laughs, “I’m a multimillion-dollar client!”
Coming to America
Hoil, 36, grew up on his family’s small farm in the town of Tekax, Mexico. As a child, he sold newspapers, flowers and Popsicles on the street—the business itch was present even early on. His first time ever setting foot outside the Mexican state of Yucatán was at age 17 for his flight to permanently move to the U.S. Older brother Eric had already settled in Colorado, so Hoil joined him out west, landing a job washing dishes at a restaurant.
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There, he worked alongside an American waitress named Jennifer. He wanted to date her, but knew virtually no English. “I signed up for classes,” he says, “but I was working 70 hours a week, so I kept falling asleep.” He gradually learned the language by speaking to drunk patrons at the bar, “because they speak much slower!” Hoil laughs.
Three full years later, he felt he had finally acquired enough English. Their first date was at a Thai restaurant for lunch on his birthday, Aug. 23, but his English wasn’t yet as fluent as it is today. “I just kept nodding my head like I understood everything.” They married, and in 2006 moved east to Arlington,where Jennifer was originally from.
Upon being laid off and unable to land other work amid the economic freefall, Hoil started cooking a lot more meals, including recipes his mom made when he was growing up. After inviting over his neighbor and friend, Marc Wallace, for dinner, the entrepreneur—who had founded successful companies, including Radius Networks and SwapDrive—was so impressed with the carne asada that he suggested Hoil turn his cooking into a food stand.
Hoil was skeptical. “I’m not a chef. I don’t have a culinary school degree,” Hoil admits. “I learned starting at age 10 in my mom’s kitchen.” Besides, where would he get the $25,000 for a food stand? Fortunately, Wallace pooled together the money from family, friends and his own personal savings to get his friend started.
The stand debuted in July 2009 on a Rosslyn street corner, which also featured national Mexican food chains Chipotle and Baja Fresh. Rather than hurt his sales, that direct competition actually made all the difference, as Hoil’s more authentic ingredients and customization options set him apart.
As did his work ethic. “My schedule was crazy: getting up at 4 in the morning to make fresh guacamole, fresh pico de gallo, heating the buns, marinating the beans. I was cooking and preparing all the food myself. My counter top burned out,” Hoil remembers. “I broke my leg and tore my meniscus playing soccer, but I was still on crunches at the taco stand.”
Hoil cites Northern Virginia’s more favorable business environment over adjacent Washington, DC as a critical component of his early financial success. At the time, DC food carts required more extensive licenses and permits, which were difficult to obtain—plus city rules mandated food carts remain in a fixed position. Virginia’s and Arlington County’s regulations were comparatively more permissible.
Beyond the Food Truck
The first brick-and-mortar District Taco restaurant opened in November 2010, in Arlington’s Yorktown neighborhood. Asked to describe that very first day, Hoil answers, “We had no idea what we were doing.”
Fortunately, business improved quickly once customer feedback was incorporated. One customer suggested adding a salsa bar, which helped influence the chain’s now ubiquitous, expansive salsa bar, which includes the mild tomatillo, the medium chiltomate, the hot mestizo and very hot habanero. Another customer suggested using cane sugar instead of syrup in the sodas, as is traditional in Mexico.
Indeed, remaining true to Mexican cuisine is one of District Taco’s hallmarks. For example, all their shrimp and avocados come from the Gulf of Mexico. Hoil does cite one currently Americanized aspect of the menu that he’d like to make more authentic. In Mexico, carnitas are made with sour oranges, “but you can’t get sour oranges here,” he explains.
Business snowballed from that first store, expanding with one or more new locations annually. The current total stands at 14 and counting, including six in Northern Virginia: Alexandria, Tysons Corner, Dunn Loring in Vienna, North Arlington’s Yorktown neighborhood, Baileys Crossroads Center in Falls Church and a full-fledged store in Rosslyn right up the hill from the location of that original taco stand.
One employee of that Rosslyn store had five young children when she started as a food runner for the company. Now, she’s the general manager. “I take a lot of chances on a lot of people,” Hoil explains, saying he likes to hire people whose life circumstances mirror his own nascent economic conditions.
The person who helps most with menu improvements is Hoil’s brother, Eric. Life came full circle: Hoil originally followed older brother Eric’s footsteps in moving to Colorado, but a few years ago Eric followed his younger brother’s footsteps in moving east, originally working for District Taco doing quality assurance and now as the company’s executive chef.
His mother, Nelly, who visits the U.S. three times a year, often fails to stop at one of her son’s establishments as her first meal after disembarking. “She absolutely loves Chinese restaurants,” Hoil laughs, “but there aren’t any in Mexico!”
But at least when his mother does patronize the restaurant, she sticks to the menu, which not every customer does. Asked for the most unusual customer request he’d ever seen, Hoil answers, “Someone once ordered a quesadilla without cheese.”
Four additional locations are in Washington, DC, two in Maryland and two in Pennsylvania. District Taco aims to expand soon into Sterling, Ashburn, Manassas, Richmond and Baltimore.
Living the Dream
Hoil and his family now live in Arlington’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Jennifer works as director of marketing and public relations for a satellite company startup in DC. “When we got married, we created a dream board,” Hoil shares, “and now we’ve both achieved everything on it.” (With a slight tweak on one item: his dream board’s sports car really represented owning a “fun vehicle,” now jointly fulfilled by his 1950 Chevy pickup and his Yamaha R1 motorcycle.)
He and Jennifer have three children: two sons and a daughter. Hoil says he already sees an entrepreneurial spirit in them. Clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
But one way he does hope the apple falls farther from the tree is education. Hoil says he regrets not earning at least his high school degree, but hopes to in the future. “I was this close to getting my GED, but I was about 10 points short in math, especially algebra,” he says. “Then life just got too busy.”
In his free time, Hoil likes to take the family to visit Mexico several times per year. He’s also an avid cyclist, riding his bike from 5 to 7:30 a.m. most mornings at Hains Point in southwest DC. In an interview with the inspirational podcast Dreamboard Social Club, Hoil said his favorite book was, fittingly, the Adam Rubin children’s picture book Dragons Love Tacos.
Though he may not be a dragon, what is Hoil’s own go-to District Taco menu item that he loves? Unable to pick just one, he chooses four: shrimp tacos, carne asada, pollo asado and the burrito mojado. And which of the four toppings options: the breakfast way (scrambled eggs and potatoes), American way (lettuce, pico de gallo and cheese), Mexican way (cilantro and onion) or Jefe way (lettuce, pico de gallo, vegetables, cheese and sour cream)? “Oh, the Mexican way,” he replies matter-of-factly as if implying, Isn’t that obvious?
Hoil adamantly refuses to answer any questions about the United States’ current policies or immigration debates regarding Mexico, whether the long-promised wall or the practice of separating families at the border. “District Taco is for everyone,” Hoil answers as explanation for his reticence to weigh in on such controversial topics. Although at one point in conversation, he does say, “To anybody who thinks the American dream is dead, I’m proof that it’s not.”
District Taco’s other hallmarks include the distinctive local specificities of both the company’s name and its logo, featuring the shape of Washington, DC’s borders as the letter ‘a’ in the word ‘Taco.’ Hoil insists that even if the company expands nationally, as he hopes for someday, it will always be named District Taco and incorporate the DC borders in its logo.
Why? Because it’s the capital of the nation he loves so much, the nation he became a citizen of in 2012, the nation where his children were born and raised, the nation where his business could truly thrive. “Mexico taught me how to work hard. But in Mexico, even though you work really hard, you don’t see results,” Hoil says. “In the United States, when you work hard, you see results.”
District Taco locations include:
Alexandria: 701 S. Washington St., Alexandria
Baileys Crossroads Center: 5275-C Lessburg Pike, Falls Church
Dunn Loring: 26760 Avenir Place, Vienna
Rosslyn: 1500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
Tysons: 1500-C Cornerside Blvd., Tysons Corner
Yorktown: 5723 Lee Highway, Arlington
DuPont Circle: 1919 M St. NW
Eastern Market: 656 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Metro Center: 1309 F St. NW
Tenleytown: 4600 Wisconsin Ave. NW