Meat and dairy account for nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The World Health Organization says that diets high in red meat could be responsible for roughly 50,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide.
These are all numbers that we’ve more than likely heard before. And yet, most of us continue to eat meat anyway. Why? Because it’s delicious. Bettina Stern, co-founder of Chaia Tacos, doesn’t doubt that meat is delicious. She believes, however, that vegetables can be just as delicious, if not more. Stern and Suzanne Simon started Chaia Tacos in May of 2013 with a mission to get people to eat more vegetables. The menu at Chaia Tacos is centered around local and seasonal vegetables: Creamy kale and potato. Chipotle sweet potato hash. Charred green beans. All cooked to perfection.
“I like to think of us as vegetarian for carnivores because I want the carnivores to come and eat what we make,” Stern says.
PLANNING A GROWTH STRATEGY
It’s a mission that many seem to like. Since opening at a farmer’s market in 2013, Chaia Tacos has grown to two brick & mortar restaurants with plans to open a third location this year.
As it continues to grow, however, Chaia faces a number of tough business questions around how it will look in the future. Should the menu include meat options? Should the hand tortilla making process be automated? What VC group should it receive funding from?
To better understand the future of Chaia and how it would get there, Stern enlisted the help of undergraduate business students at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
As part of their final project in their core strategic management course, McDonough students partnered with local D.C. businesses, such as Chaia Tacos, to address their key business challenges.
WORKING WITH REAL-WORLD BUSINESSES
In the required course, McDonough students learn a variety of business frameworks that they then apply to a real-life business challenge. 2020 was the first year that the course incorporated real-world, local businesses such as Chaia. The real-world aspect is a key component to helping students understand business strategy – an often abstract and lofty concept.
“The experience of actually putting these tools and frameworks to use with a real client is incredibly valuable for students,” Jasmina Chauvin, an assistant professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at McDonough who teaches the core strategic management course, says. “Just being in touch with a real client. Learning more about how a real business operates or how entrepreneurs start their business.”
To better understand Chaia’s business challenges, students had to first understand Chaia Tacos as a brand. Students did research on everything—from the industry that Chaia plays in, to the competitors that it plays against.
“It’s really peeling back the layers of the onion inside a company and figuring out what makes it unique,” Chauvin says.
One aspect that makes Chaia Tacos unique is its handmade tortillas.
“We hand griddle all of our corn tortillas,” Stern says. “We get masa, which is corn flour, and put it in a big bowl, add warm water and some kosher salt, and a little bit of extra virgin olive oil and mix it up like a dough. Then it’s hand kneaded. Everything is done by hand. Someone has to roll the dough into little golf ball sized bolitos. Then they have to be pressed using a ten-dollar cast iron hand press. They’re then put on the hot griddle, which is called the comal, and cooked.”
After conducting research and customer interviews, McDounough students offered recommendations to Stern on how Chaia could make their kitchen operations more efficient without sacrificing on the quality and integrity of their tortillas. Having the help of business-savvy students, Stern says, has helped her see what the future for Chaia Tacos looks like and how they’re going to get there.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Stern describes herself as a “boots on the ground” type of person. She doesn’t have an MBA. She doesn’t have a business background. And she’s, more or less, learning as she goes along. With eight years now in business, Chaia Tacos is still going strong. The biggest test for Chaia, however, was 2020. Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Stern recalls nearly giving up on Chaia.
“2020 was a hard pivot,” Stern says. “It was a very difficult year. I was watching that virus march our way in the months beforehand and already warning the team that we have got to pay attention to this. This is serious. When it came, it was relentless. It was heartbreaking. It was challenging and overwhelming. Super overwhelming and never ending. By late May, I was just done.”
Then, George Floyd was murdered. As riots ensued in D.C., Stern made the decision to board up all Chaia Taco shops and told her team to go home and take paid time off.
“That was kind of a turnaround point for us because everybody needed it,” Stern says. “I needed it. I think we came back sort of rejuvenated to continue to be really vocal about stuff that was happening and to just brave this storm. Because we had to. This was a baby that I birthed, and I wasn’t going to give up her.”
The time off allowed Stern and her team to rest, but it also helped Chaia Tacos come back stronger and ready for the path forward. The business’ debt was restructured. Old operational systems were redesigned. And, as the city began opening up, customers came to Chaia Tacos with an appetite to eat.
“The pandemic slapped us back a couple of years, but I think that there continues to be a growing interest in eating more plants and eating more healthily for ourselves and for the planet and that we’re just poised to be a type of food that even meat eaters will want to eat.”
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