Back in 1997, Taqueria el Poblano founder and chef Glen Adams landed in DC, his latest stop in a career that led him through the States and Europe. By 1999 the California native was eager to showcase the food he grew up with in LA.
From the taco trucks of his youth to the regional Mexican specialties he tasted during his travels, Glen developed a menu to showcase his favorites—duck tacos, frijoles charros, and steak tampiquena. Then he took on two partners, pastry chefs Dan and Lindsay Michel.
More than a decade after they opened a second restaurant, which they call Taqueria 2 in North Arlington, we sat down with the couple to talk about the restaurant business.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Click here to listen to our podcast interview on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
Be Inkandescent: What made you want to be restaurant owners?
Dan Michel: When Glen and I worked together in the hotel business, he was a chef of cuisine and I was a pastry chef, and we became good friends. About 13 years ago, he wanted to open the Taqueria in Northern Virginia, I helped him as a friend, not a business partner, painting, gutting the place, doing carpentry.
The first restaurant did so well that three years later he called me up and wanted to know if I would be interested in helping him open up a second location. That’s when I left my career as a hotel pastry chef and went into the Taqueria business.
Be Inkandescent: From pastry chef to tacos, was that a big leap?
Dan Michel: I worked my way through college at jobs in restaurants and hotels before realizing I wanted to work with food to make a living. At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, I discovered that pastries was my thing. After 22 years as a pastry chef, making the transition to running a restaurant was huge. I had no idea how different the two careers would be.
Be Inkandescent: Lindsay, tell us about your background. You also have experience as a pastry chef.
Lindsay Michel: After I graduated from college, I worked in finance for a while. When Dan and I got married and moved to Hawaii, there wasn’t much for me to do there, so he got me into a course back East with Roland Mesnier, the White House pastry chef.
Dan and I thought that we would open our own pastry shop one day, but once we were back in Virginia, I got pregnant and neither of us wanted to work eight days a week, so we stuck with what we were doing, Dan as a pastry chef and me doing wedding cakes for one of the DC hotels for about 15 years. When Glen came along with the idea for the Taqueria, our kids were more grown up and we thought, “What the heck, let’s do something really fun together!”
Be Inkandescent: And here we are in the Taqueria, at 2503 Harrison Street in North Arlington. This place is very popular with local families. Friday nights you can barely get a seat in here! When did you open Taq3?
Lindsay Michel: May of 2012 on Columbia Pike in South Arlington, in a neighborhood that is transitioning. It is also going to be a lot of fun as it grows.
Be Inkandescent: How do you choose new locations?
Dan Michel: I wish I could say it’s scientific. We looked for two or three years, not intensely, but always kind of keeping an ear to the ground for growing neighborhoods. We didn’t do any surveys or hire any companies that do demographic studies or anything. We just felt this place was transitioning and was going to be a hot spot. We sure hope it will be.
*Be Inkandescent: One thing I find remarkable about you and this restaurant is that you hire high school students who want to work, and you take them under your wing. You train them and teach them about the restaurant business. Many stay on for years, working in different jobs.
Lindsay Michel: We become a family here with the kids who fit. They start out not knowing much of anything about how to take on responsibility, how to be reliable, how to be fast at their job when they need to be, and how to take good care of each other.
Dan Michel: For a lot of the kids, it’s their very first job. They really have to learn how to have a job, which means showing up when you’re supposed to show up and negotiating all of that.
Lindsay Michel: But we are pretty tender with them. We tell them what we expect, and then when they fall down we give them a few chances. If they really aren’t made for this business, then we release them gently.
Be Inkandescent: Talk a little bit about the restaurant business. Is there a key to the success of a restaurant? Is it creating that sort of “Cheers” atmosphere?
Lindsay Michel: I think it is a part of the charm here. The food is very, very good since the recipes are good and they’re made from scratch. When you add to the atmosphere of the place, it just really works.
Dan Michel: The location is important, too. This is not a lunch location like down around Clarendon or DC. It’s a family dinner kind of place. A lot of neighborhood people come in with young families. For us, getting to know the people who come here is huge. Some other restaurants just have a product, and people come and go and that’s fine.
Be Inkandescent: Is it is stressful to run a business together?
Lindsay Michel: We both have found that sharing this job actually makes it easier. My life got even better when we started working together. We had more time together. I like sharing our work life and the rest of our life interests, too.
One of the things I like best is that if one of us needs down time or off time, the other can fill in and just carry it. When restaurant owners are in this business on their own and can’t get some down time, they get eaten up.
Dan Michel: Ditto to all of that. Shared responsibility is one thing, and then we have our own area of expertise. To me it is nice to have a sounding board on a problem issue, or new hire, or disciplinary issue, or even purchasing issue, who is intimately involved with the restaurant.
With Lindsay, I don’t feel I am just out there by myself. I respect her opinion so much on so many things. A lot of our decisions are made jointly, which is great.
Be Inkandescent: How did you meet?
Lindsay Michel: I was living in a shared house with a bunch of chefs who worked at The Jockey Club restaurant in DC, and I was a stockbroker back then. I had thought I would eat really well living with all of these chefs. Not so. They eat hot dogs when they are home! Dan came to that restaurant as a pastry chef one day when I just happened to be passing through the kitchen. They introduced me to him and it was love at first sight. Heart palpitations for both of us!
Be Inkandescent: Do you miss being pastry chefs?
Dan Michel: I do, absolutely. I miss the hands-on, I miss the artistry of it. I miss the production. I miss the chemistry of it. I miss the dance of having the mixers going and stuff in the oven and everything happening. I’m a producer; I like to produce things, and that was one of the adjustments for me. I’m not making things anymore. I am making things happen, which is different. I don’t miss the bureaucracy and politics of being a hotel manager though.
Be Inkandescent: What was your specialty?
Dan Michel: We baked all the breakfast things: danishes, croissants, and muffins. I did chocolate work, sugar work, high-end desserts. We did real high-end weddings and bar mitzvahs and all of that kind of stuff.
What would distinguish us from other hotels, I think, was that I worked very intimately with clients and designed specific plated desserts for their events. You can buy good quality stuff out there, but you can’t buy somebody who is going to custom design a plated dessert for your event. That is what I did a lot of, and part of what I miss.
Be Inkandescent: That’s impressive. Lindsay, do you miss making wedding cakes?
Lindsay Michel: I miss decorating wedding cakes and putting them together, but the truth is I never liked making them. I never liked cleaning up after making them. I did like eating them!
Dan Michel: I have to speak up for her. She was great with working with brides and mothers of brides. That can be a real challenge. I had the baking skills, but she surpassed me for sure in decorating. Back then we divided and conquered, too. I was faster at mixing, baking, slicing, filling, and masking, and then I would turn it over to her and she would do all of the delicate typing and decorating, which I could do but didn’t like. She was just better at it.
Be Inkandescent: Last question: What advice would you give to other couples that work together?
Lindsay Michel: I think you have to already know if you’re cut out for it. Some couples are and some couples aren’t.
Dan Michel: I would say each person is going to have a strength and a weakness, so play to that. And once you decide that this person is going to be in charge of a particular realm, let them do it.
Be Inkandescent: Good advice!
For more information about Taqueria el Poblano, visit www.taqueriapoblano.com.