Tacofino builds an empire out of Baja beach food

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      With its first and most famous location sitting in a gravel parking lot at what feels like the end of the world, Tacofino’s roots are the very definition of West Coast casual. But if there’s been a guiding principle for a business that started out as a single Baja–inspired food truck in Tofino, it’s that you always think about your target audience. That’s helped Tacofino cofounders Jason Sussman and Kaeli Robinsong immensely as they’ve built a mini empire, with locations in Hastings-Sunrise, Gastown, Kits, Metrotown, Mount Pleasant, Squamish, and beyond.

      “For our first bunch of restaurants, our menus were all different, and our design was all different,” says Sussman, speaking on Zoom from Tofino with Robinsong. “People seemed to love that, and it allowed us to try different things, even though it didn’t always work. In each neighbourhood we’ve gone into we try and feel the neighbourhood out—give people the food they wanted and the design they wanted.”

      Sussman and Robinsong opened the first Tacofino location in 2009, behind a surf shop in a parking lot off Pacific Rim Highway in Tofino. After purchasing and retrofitting an old film-catering truck, the two committed to an idea inspired by some of their favourite things: cooking, travelling, and surfing.

      “We definitely wanted to do something that Tofino needed and wanted,” Robinsong says. “So we got really curious, talked to a lot of the locals and got to know people, and asked around what they wanted. Originally we were going to do an organic, gourmet burger truck sort of thing, but there was a burger stand right next to where we were opening. A lot of Tofino residents seemed like they might spend time surfing in Mexico in the winter, and so everybody was like, ‘Tacos! We want tacos!’ ”

      Having travelled extensively in North America, Asia, and other parts of the world, the Toronto-spawned Sussman and Cortes Island-raised Robinsong began thinking about how they might put their own spin on things.

      “We never intended to make a super-authentic Mexican menu,” Robinsong says. “We think of the taco as a vessel for an incredible, tiny little array of flavours. We’d spent a lot of time in Hawaii and California, so our concept was sort of ‘beach food,’ and what the perfect meal might be after a big, long day of surfing.”

      Tacofino has always, and importantly, been embraced first by the community. That was true long before it began expanding into new neighbourhoods and cities.

      “The first year and a half in Tofino, it was a lot of locals—all people we became friends with,” Sussman shares. “The carpenters and electricians who were looking for a more inexpensive quick place to eat. And then we got really lucky. In year two, we were offering a spot on a Food Network show called Eat Street. I’m not a natural at interviews and things, so I was like, ‘Umm, I don’t wanna do a food truck show.’ But Kaeli said, ‘No, Let’s do it.’ Eat Street was, I think, the number one show on the Food Network at that time­—huge—and just after we did it, we totally blew up. It helped us for sure.”

      Tacofino’s first brick-and-mortar expansion opened in Vancouver on East Hastings in 2012, the room immediately becoming a much-loved community hub—noted for its communal tables and ultra-funky living and breathing lighting fixtures, created out of blown glass, copper, and plants by famed Vancouver designer Omer Arbel.

      Just as amazing as the decor were the tacos, which have always been the focus, even as Robinsong and Sussman have been willing to experiment with menus at their various locations.

      For regulars, heaven at Tacofino starts with the Japanese-inspired Albacore Tuna taco with soy glaze, wasabi mayo, and pickled ginger. Crispy Chicken tacos come with buttermilk chili crema, pickled vegetables, and chimichurri. Vegetarians can opt for the Roasted Brussels Sprout tacos with crispy sweet potato, cabbage, smoked mayo, jalapeño, and feta, or Cauliflower tacos with achiote onion tempura, “not-so-fish-sauce,” vegan lime crema, salsa verde, and cilantro.

      “Timing wise, we really lucked out just as tacos were becoming a thing around the world,” Sussman offers. “I myself love making Asian food—I think Kaeli probably makes more Mexican-style food than I do—so it probably wouldn’t have been my choice to open a taco shop.”

      Tacofino is, of course, more than just a taco shop—with offerings including burritos, addictive tater tots, a ridiculously great tortilla soup, and a dangerously good cocktail menu (don’t miss the Pomegranate Sage and Surfrider margaritas).

      The growth of Tacofino—there are now 15 locations across BC, including food trucks—is something neither Sussman or Robinsong foresaw back in the early days when they were manning the food truck in Tofino.

      “It’s been incredibly serendipitous,” Robinsong admits. “It was never the plan, and wasn’t done out of ambition, that we’ve done all this. I’m so grateful for our incredible team, which has been just crushing it forever, and bringing us so much further than our original vision for things.”

      There have, as one might expect, been challenges.

      “I’m a cook, and Kaeli’s a cook and a designer,” Sussman says. “Now all of a sudden we have 300 to 400 employees, and you’re in charge of things like budgets, which requires an entirely different skillset. I still do a lot of cooking at home, as does Kaeli, but, yeah, I miss cooking in a restaurant. You become a little disconnected from that.”

      Staying connected to the West Coast paradise where it all started isn’t, however, a problem for Tacofino’s founders, Robinsong joking that the only reason Sussman is on the call this day is because the surfing in Tofino isn’t perfect.

      The growing chain’s next location will be a special one, with Robinsong proudly announcing that Tacofino will be opening a new brick-and-mortar spot in the heart of Tofino in the middle of 2025. And don’t worry—it will be true to the roots of the original food truck down the road.

      “I’m really excited about this chapter,” Robinsong says. “Our goal is to keep the truck just where it is, but we’ll be building out a little flagship spot in Tofino. It’s not going to be a big, sit-down, fancy place. It will still be very Tacofino-ish, with an order counter. So it’s going to be a real full-circle project.”