Despite Food Network win, food court taco stand struggles

Taco in a Bag may have had the good fortune to appear on a national reality show, but for the two men who run the West Dundee eatery, reality hit once the afterglow wore off and profits went south.

Buoyed by the exposure the eatery received on “Food Court Wars” on the Food Network in March, business was booming. Those first three weeks at Spring Hill Mall, partners Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti and Tim “Gravy” Brown were raking it in, with long lines of people clamoring to try their take on tacos. The first week, they rung up sales of $6,000, Brown said.

After those initial three weeks, the novelty wore off.

Foot traffic to the mall slowed and the duo were left, literally, holding the bag. One day in early June, they only rang up $108 in sales, their worst day so far.

“We started really busy from the show, and we've tapered off and bottomed out, I think,” Bertoletti said. “We don't know the scheduling and the timing and the (mall) sales — what it's going to be for the whole year. It's just scary because we don't know … the busy times.”

The pair, who commute to the mall from Chicago, have been forced to cut costs. One person works there at a time now, and others — family and friends — work for free because otherwise, the partners say, it will cost $6,000 to buy workers' compensation insurance.

Because Brown has a mortgage, he still works two other jobs in marketing to make ends meet. For Bertoletti, the eatery remains his primary source of revenue. The pair occasionally make money on the side by producing and participating in competitive eating events.

The concept

“Food Court Wars” pits two teams of two food entrepreneur hopefuls against each other as they fight to open a food court restaurant inside the host mall. The winning team scores $5,000 and opens their eatery rent-free for a year. The show's second season featured malls in Rouse Properties' portfolio, including Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee.

Brown and Bertoletti, two semiretired competitive eaters who owned the Glutton Force Five food truck in Chicago, won with their taco in a bag concept, which serves up homemade nachos and toppings in a single bag.

The why factor

Bertoletti and Brown aren't pointing fingers at Spring Hill Mall, because management has taken an active role in helping them succeed, they say.

Management has promoted the eatery throughout the mall and included them as part of their Friday farmers market lineup.

“We have a vested interest in helping to ensure the long-term success of all our tenants,” Rouse Properties said in a statement. “As the winner of 'Food Court Wars,' Taco in a Bag has generated a lot of excitement and we are glad to play a role in their success.”

Though Taco in a Bag is lucky to have repeat customers, the mall's foot traffic continues to be slow, the partners said. And some patrons just don't understand the taco in a bag concept.

“The people who are here, they want pizza and hot dogs,” Brown said. “They want simple things.”

Looking inward

Brown also takes responsibility for neglecting to read through the various contracts they signed to appear on the show. Everything happened so quickly, he explained. The network reached out to the partners 48 hours before they were due to start taping, and there wasn't much time to make a decision, Brown said.

So the duo slept on it before deciding the national exposure could only help them.

“We didn't know what we were doing; we had to figure out the rules,” Brown said. “We had to jump on it, and we did. Why not give it a shot?”

The show, he said, should have helped him and his partner understand what they were getting themselves into.

For example, the duo weren't aware they'd have to buy their own cooking and kitchen equipment. They also didn't know the costs associated with bringing the space up to village code, as the partners have never run a restaurant before.

They ended up depleting their savings by dropping $20,000 on renovations and kitchen equipment. The $5,000 they won from the show also went toward the business, and they had to give up operating the food truck to devote their attention to the eatery.

“I blame myself for not being very careful and not looking at (documents) every step of the way, but you have certain assumptions,” Brown said. “It is the Food Network; you have the idea they're going to give you something of substance.”

Seth Hyman, a Food Network spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment.

The aftermath

To rebuild sales, the duo have been getting the word out about their business to potential customers beyond the mall.

Earlier this month, they promoted their business on LXTV's “1st Look,” and they shot a segment for “Chicago's Best” that is scheduled to air July 27 on WGN-TV.

They also printed and distributed menus to area businesses, appeared on several television morning shows and started sending email blasts to customers.

Business started picking up mid-June and Brown thinks it's because word is finally getting out. In his view, the duo need to make Taco in a Bag a destination in order to succeed.

“We're positive about it — nothing ever happens in life without working hard for it,” Brown said. “We're definitely committed to being here and trying to make this work … and build that word-of-mouth. But we need help.”

  The June “Norberto” taco of the month from Taco in a Bag features spicy braised chicken, sauteed onions and peppers, cheese, cilantro and a avocado jalapeño sauce. Rick West/
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