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HOW I MADE IT: Kevin McCarney : A taste for Mexican food launches a fresh concept

November 15, 2009|David Sarno

The gig: Decades before Los Angeles had a Taco Bell, La Salsa or Baja Fresh restaurant on every corner, there was a modest taco stand in Studio City called Poquito Mas. The name means "a little bit more," and that's been McCarney's cautious growth philosophy since he opened his first restaurant in 1984.

"Poquito" at a time: Poquito Mas turned 25 in October, and in that span, the chain has "slowly, methodically" added nine more locations in the Los Angeles area, from Rolling Hills to Chatsworth and the Sunset Strip to the Warner Bros. lot. It's now a $14-million-a-year business that serves "fresh Mexican" food to nearly 3,000 customers every day.

Outside the original location on Cahuenga Boulevard last week, McCarney -- who grew up in Hollywood -- stood under the shade of palm trees he planted a quarter-century ago. Behind him, the lunch line for burrito lovers extended, as usual, out the door.

One man, one stand: Before starting his first restaurant, McCarney worked in what he called the "80-hour-a-week corporate management world."

"I had no money, no wife, no kids," he said. "And I really wanted to start a taco stand.

"I'd spent a lot of time in Mexico and fell in love with the food. It's an affair that still goes on today."

But the idea was to do something different from the kind of food that Mexican restaurants with red leather booths, dim lighting and costumed waitresses were serving.

"Fresh Mexican cuisine wasn't the kind that was melted together under a pile of sauce and cheese and you had to figure out what it was. That's what we wanted to get away from."

When you know you have a winner: In 1985, McCarney frequently made trips to San Felipe, Mexico, a coastal shrimping and fishing town in Baja California. Without fail, he would stop at a tiny restaurant called La Bonita run by a cook named Mariela.

But McCarney wanted to know why Mariela -- and, as far as he could tell, everyone else -- insisted on breading and frying shrimp for their tacos.

Two weeks later he returned to La Bonita to see that Mariela had taken his question to heart and was serving a new kind of shrimp taco -- with no breading.

"Mr. Kevin, they're very popular!" she said.

And thus was born Poquito Mas' Shrimp Taco San Felipe, one of the restaurant's most popular items.

Managing with an iPhone: For the first five years, McCarney worked seven days a week at his first restaurant.

But now he roves from location to location, iPhone in hand, making sure all is running smoothly in his small empire of tacos, tortillas and quesadillas.

Midway through an interview, McCarney received a text message with some bad news: An apparent crop freeze in the Salinas Valley had doubled the price of Romaine lettuce, from $20 to $40 a case. So what would he do?

"There's not much you can do when you're dealing with fresh produce," he said, tapping out a question about the quality of the $40 lettuce back to his manager.

You can't have salads without lettuce or chips without salsa, McCarney said. "It's like selling spaghetti without spaghetti sauce."

Press it yourself: Each Poquito Mas restaurant now produces about 900 fresh corn tortillas daily.

But when McCarney started, there was no tortilla maker available that could produce enough of them to support the demand.

So in 1994, he invented one. McCarney spent more than $40,000 to design and build his own aluminum and steel tortilla press, a machine for which he now owns multiple patents and which anchors tortilla production in all 10 stores.

Poquito, grande: Health is not all about calories and cholesterol -- it's about how much you eat, McCarney said. Latching on to this idea, Poquito Mas serves its food in different portions.

McCarney brings out a basket containing three burritos: small, medium and large.

"The idea that there would only be one size portion is kind of archaic," he said, "because there are so many different sizes of people!"


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