It was late in the evening, and Hamooda Shami had just finished distributing stacks of Gung Ho Guides all around Charlottesville. He ducked into a tiny taqueria on the way back to his hotel room, looking for take-out. What he found was El Puerto, a space very similar to the location he had transformed into Carytown’s Don’t Look Back just two years before.
“It basically looked like Viva Mexico1 but in pristine shape,” says Shami. The spot was utilitarian at best–no frills, just a counter and a menu. “It still had the florescent lights, no bar at all, not really a cozy space.” But where others saw only tacos, Hamooda saw opportunity. “Luckily, my order took a while, and I asked for the owner’s email. He was in the back, so we started talking.” And that’s how it happened. After a quick makeover, Yearbook Taco opened the last week in October.
It seems Shami has a way of stepping into exactly right the place with enviable timing. A simple encounter can quickly turn into a fateful meeting, just as it had two years before between Shami and business partner Nate Gutierrez.
When Shami signed the lease on the Viva Mexico location in 2012, he had a place without a purpose. He knew he wanted to create a great vibe–a neighborhood scene, good nightlife. But the type of cuisine was still up in the air. He thought Mexican could be a good fit, and some employees at New York Deli sent him to the man behind the best tacos in town, Nate Gutierrez.
“I was nervous. I felt like I was about to ask a crush for her number to get coffee or something,” Shami recalls of the day he went calling on the taco maestro. “He was getting crushed, line out the door. I left so excited like, ‘I got his digits!'” Shami laughs.
Later that year, Shami and Gutierrez opened Don’t Look Back in Hamooda’s home court, the 2900 block of W. Cary Street, where Shami is also co-owner of New York Deli and Portrait House. Shami, who began his career in the restaurant industry in 2003, brings a depth of knowledge around operations, financial management, and marketing to the table. He knew he would need a chef with tested and well-loved recipes to help his vision come to life.
“It’s kind of the perfect marriage. I handle the business side of things,” Shami explains. “[Nate] had a proven menu with unique recipes and a brand already, his own personal brand. He was a local legend.” Shami says Nate’s Taco Truck couldn’t simply plop itself into a successful brick and mortar: “The business model it was built on didn’t work on a brick and mortar place,” he says. And his own vision was similarly incomplete: “You can’t just have a bar. It’s Virginia; you need a food program. So the two of us complimented each other perfectly.”
“When you have these sort of business partnerships, it’s a marriage. You spend more time with your partners than you do with your family,” says Shami. He seems to have found a soulmate in Nate, but he knew that Don’t Look Back itself had its limits.
Shami was interested in a franchise model all along and had regularly talked about the idea with Nate–maybe Chapel Hill, maybe Charlottesville. But Shami says, “I thought having ten Don’t Look Backs would be growing just to grow.” That’s where Yearbook Tacos came in. It’s a slight variation on the Don’t Look Back concept, complete with similar menus and some of Gutierrez’s signature recipes, like his chorizo and his (life-giving) frito pie. The idea behind Yearbook is the same as Don’t Look Back–tacos and booze, a very specific menu of a few things done well.
“It’s a rebranding of Don’t Look Back in a fashion that will lend itself well to being put in other cities,” Shami explains. “I like the idea of the taco bar model in different towns, because, at some point, there is a saturation in a town like Richmond with so many food options.” Playing on the yearbook theme, employees and guests, especially regulars, will be encouraged to bring in old yearbook photos of themselves for a chance to become part of the scenery, an element Shami feels will help personalize each space and emphasize the community spirit.
Gutierrez trained Yearbook’s head chef in his methods: “We lucked out and got John Meicklejohn” he says. They scored big with Meicklejohn, who had previously worked at the Charlottesville institution Continental Divide as well as Blue Light Grill & Raw Bar. “He’s pretty awesome. I taught him how we do stuff here and the main ideas basically, a few recipes. But he tweaked them to how he does things.”
Each menu will be slightly different, reflecting the tastes of its patrons. At Yearbook Taco, with its close proximity to UVA, tofu is in high demand, so Meicklejohn offers Twin Oaks tofu with pasilla or chipotle peppers. While at Don’t Look Back, the more prep-intensive rajas; roasted strips of anaheim, bell peppers, and onions; are popular.
The team at Yearbook Taco has been taking things slow. Their October 27th opening was as soft as possible–there was no PR and no signage. For Shami, the lack of fanfare surrounding the opening was all about getting things right and working out the kinks with a small group. Getting final ABC permitting and a strong grasp on a brand new point-of-sale system were the big priorities in the first week.
Now that Shami has expanded his empire to four locations, with one being 70 miles away, remote management is the name of the game. His company, Big Youth Management Consulting, is responsible for managing the financials, some operations, and marketing for the four businesses for which Shami is an owner.
“I don’t have a handbook for this in terms of how to grow. I’m figuring it out as I go along. It’s been a fun process,” he says, chuckling to himself. “Now I’m building out the infrastructure, adding professionalism. It’s no longer that sort of clubhouse feel. We want to retain our character, but the growth is forcing us to mature.”
Shami hopes to grow the consulting aspect of Big Youth to help other restaurants with marketing and operations. While he’s moved away from the day-to-day taskwork of owning a restaurant, he’s set his sights on building more businesses, both for himself and others. “I do enjoy creating the restaurant–building places that are not just a slogan but actual neighborhood places,” he says. Big Youth is a way for him to focus on the parts of the business where he excels, ideally avoiding the burnout that many restaurateurs face: “I want to focus on building the places and doing creative promotions and marketing and community-oriented projects. I know what it takes to build a restaurant”
- The previous tenant of the space that is now Don’t Look Back ↩
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