After moving back home to Chicago from California, Taylor Mason missed Los Angeles’ ubiquitous street tacos. She’d get an occasional whiff thanks to a guy who sporadically set up a grill on a Wicker Park sidewalk, drawing a line of hungry patrons that stretched down the block.
“It was hot of the plancha, right into your plate,” Mason said. “You could see the food being cooked right in front of you.”
That craving inspired Mason to launch Taylor’s Tacos, which she runs with her wife, Maya Mason. The business, an alum of the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program, includes a catering service, taco truck, and event space. But it also has a broader mission.
Born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, Mason understands what it means to live in a food desert. As she grows her taco business, she hopes to open her own catering and retail space in the community she still calls home.
“I’ve got to make the West Side great again,” said Mason, who lives in Douglas Park.
Mason wouldn’t have predicted a career in tacos when she first moved to California, on a full basketball scholarship to Pepperdine University. She studied broadcast journalism at the Malibu school and aspired to work behind the camera in Hollywood.
But as her college graduation neared in 2010, her mom suffered back-to-back brain aneurysms (she’s OK now). At her father’s request, Mason moved home to Chicago, passing up a job she had lined up on the West Coast.
“That was the hardest but easiest decision I ever had to make,” Mason said.
She worked at her family’s business, NBU Athletics, an organization that teaches basketball fundamentals to youth, as director of operations for five years. But she wasn’t a fan of the family business dynamics and wanted something different.
As she worked odd jobs – a gym teacher, a basketball coach — Mason kept going back to her longtime love of bringing people together.
She hosted a party and made tacos, inspired by the Wicker Park street vendor. They were a hit, and over the next two years she worked on perfecting her recipe for “street tacos with a whole lot of soul.”
When she met Maya in 2016, the passion project became an informal business. Maya, at the time working as a restaurant server, had grown up in a food-focused household – both of her parents had attended French culinary school and her mother was an heirloom gardener – and was excited about the potential.
In 2018, both Taylor and Maya Mason quit their jobs to focus full time on building Taylor’s Tacos.
The business specialized in pop-up catering — showing up at events and making tacos live, some of them unique twists on tradition such as salmon, asparagus, and portobello mushroom tacos. When the pandemic hit and events were cancelled, the Masons started offering taco platters, nacho bars, and prepared lunches.
They also opened an event space, called Taylored, at 2451 S. Oakley Ave., having learned through catering that event spaces are in high demand. The airy 1,400-square-foot storefront, designed to exude “a bit of Los Angeles,” sells tacos to the public on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“That added a whole new side of our business that we wouldn’t have without the pandemic,” Mason said. “We went from making $7,000 a year to over $400,000 in sales.”
Mason also started a nonprofit, Tacos Create Community, that brings people into the space for a taco experience they might not otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy. She hosted a Tacos and Tea program with Project sWish and currently has a partnership with the Above and Beyond food pantry.
Mason connected with the Polsky Center after hearing about it through the Neighborhood Entrepreneurship Lab, a nine-month virtual accelerator for Chicago-area entrepreneurs. She participated in the fall 2021 cohort of the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program, where a team of UChicago students helped her devise a marketing plan.
“The most helpful part was just having a team that you can bounce ideas off of,” Mason said. “To have people from different walks of life that can give you feedback, really made me realize how important it is to get different types of people on our team.”
Now a team of six and operating out of a kitchen in The Hatchery, a food incubator in East Garfield Park, Taylor’s Tacos is seeking larger digs as it gets more orders than it can handle. The Masons are exploring real estate on the West Side in hopes opening their own catering kitchen with limited hours for the public to buy tacos, and down the road they envision bottling their sauce, making their own tortillas, and franchising the business.
Through her adventures in entrepreneurship, Taylor Mason has learned that the key to seeing those aspirations through is dry but indispensable: follow the rules and get all of the necessary paperwork, licensing, and insurance in place.
“Be prepared so that when opportunity knocks, you are ready,” she said.
Article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. A longtime journalist, Alexia most recently was a business reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Reach Alexia via email or on Twitter @alexiaer.