The story of Tacofino would make a great movie: determination, success, roadblocks, last minute angels, and a really charming main character.
Kaeli Robinsong, co-owner of beautiful and delicious Mexican restaurant Tacofino Commissary on Hastings at Nanaimo, has come a long way from cooking up grub in tree-planter camps.
She and her friend Amy ran the kitchen, while her boyfriend (now husband) Jason planted trees. Together they’d spend their winters in Mexico. “In those long, winters when you’re not doing anything, just lying on the beach, you kind of start dreaming up ideas and ways to make a sustainable life for yourself.” Few would consider restaurants a reliable way to a sustainable life, but that didn’t deter Kaeli, Jason, and Amy.
The two Tacofino food trucks have been bright dots of colour on our downtown streets for the past two years. But at many points along the way, things did not look so promising.
“It was never part of the plan,” she says when asked about opening food trucks in Vancouver two years ago. The trio had finished their second successful summer serving tacos out of a parking lot in Tofino when their license was refused for renewal. “We had to call and lobby all of the council members, call them and ask them if we could count on their vote.” All but one declined to support them.
But just when it looked like they might have to throw in the towel, “We met a couple of guys from Vancouver who had been coming up to Tofino and loved our food. They told us that if we wanted to move to Vancouver, they would partner with us and help us through the application process.”
Vancouver’s food truck initiative was in its second round of accepting applications. Kaeli and Jason spent a week in the city, each furiously writing an application. To their great surprise, both were approved: one for a Tacofino truck, and the other for a Vietnamese sandwich truck called Kiss Kiss Ban Ban. They opted instead to open two Tacofino trucks.
Ironically, once the Vancouver trucks began generating press, the Tofino council called and offered them a license. “So all of a sudden we had three licenses, we went from having none to having three.”
Unlike in Tofino, Kaeli and her team found that Vancouverites are less willing to wait in the rain for their tacos. As business slowed in the grey months, a restaurant seemed like a natural next step. They could save money by running the trucks out of the back instead of renting commissary space, and would be able to have more flexibility with the menu without disrupting crowd favourites.
Hastings Sunrise was a natural choice for Kaeli and Jason, who had both lived in the neighbourhood while getting the trucks up and running. “We wanted to create a really lovely space to be in, and something a little different in the neighbourhood.”
It is impossible to write about Tacofino Commissary without commenting on the stunning design. Custom light fixtures by Omer Arbel bring a dreamy, rainforest atmosphere to the sparse, industrial cement floors and ashen wood communal tables. It almost seems a bit too high design, similar in style to many Gastown hotspots, but Kaeli explains that their roots inspire the look. The cement reflects the gravel parking lot where they began; the wood comes from Coombs and mimics the communal table in Tofino. Even the chandelier is recalls the fog and green of Tofino.
This iconic design pairs well with the delectable, casual food to make Tacofino a Hastings Sunrise landmark attracting Vancouverites of all neighbourhoods – exactly the draw Kaeli and Jason had hoped their restaurant would provide for the neighbourhood they love.
Tacofino is inconspicuously located at 2327 E Hastings
By Michael Schwartz
Photo: Michelle Sproule