Vida Taco Bar is a ‘farm to taco’ concept that has three Maryland locations in Annapolis, Baltimore, and a residential neighborhood between the two called Severna Park.
From six feet away, Bar & Restaurant sat down with Andrew Fox, one of the owners, at the Severna Park location to see how they have gone all-in on their popular cocktail delivery program. As Andrew puts it, “We’re not surviving, we’re thriving in this market.” The success was clear in the busyness of a supposed shutdown restaurant. Where tables and chairs normally would be, sat crates of food-grade beverage containers, self-sealing lids, dozens of cases tequila and triple sec, insulated coolers, and industrial-size juicers.
The staff, clad in PPE, was spaced out as half prepared orders for the latest round of margarita orders while others bagged nacho chips for their food market opening up in a few hours. In the middle of it all, sat Andrew at a laptop, sorting through orders by neighborhoods and calling out names and addresses with his niece and General Manager of the shutdown Vida Annapolis location, Colleen Fox, as they cross-checked their delivery route for the evening.
This is Vida’s second or third burst of innovation fueled by necessity to survive. When Governor Hogan shut down restaurants in rather vague press announcements, Andrew Fox and his partners John Miller and Josh Brown thought they would have to close completely. “Within 5 minutes we were getting texts on clarifications that they didn’t want us to close completely, and wanted us to continue to serve the community”, says Andrew Fox.
First Pivot- A Mini-Mart with Cocktails To-Go
“We had to change our business plan overnight and then overnight again and then overnight again, recalled Andrew, “I was on the phone with partners multiple times a day based on laws being changed or guidance being updated”.
Executive Chef, Josh Brown, saw how hard it was to get staple items from the grocery stores after trying to fulfill a list his wife sent him out with. The team huddled and created a mini-mart with vegetables, meat, eggs, and other necessities for the community.
The Severna Park Vida mini-market is convenient as people do not have to enter the location and they have a large patio to sell off of. By executive order from the state of Maryland, it was deemed that visitors could also take cocktails to-go with their order.
“Once we did the supermarket, we knew people wanted alcohol. And we started pushing for alcohol to-go because that clarification didn’t come immediately. Once that was allowed, doing tacos and margaritas to-go in three sizes was very easy,” says Andrew.
Second Pivot- Margarita Truck
With the mini-mart up and running five days a week, the Vida team looked at delivering alcohol next. The executive team's line of thinking was, “let's sell margaritas off the back of a truck, this is going to be fun. It’s like everybody’s dream to run the ice cream truck of alcohol and ring the bell to sell to your neighbors."
“We thought if we could set up shop in one of our friend’s driveway and if we get 100 people to show up, that would be a great day. But then 200 people showed up, and then 300 people showed up. It was incredible and if I could do that, I would do that for the rest of my life. We can generate a lot of revenue in a little bit of time with mass batching,” expressed Andrew.
Between the selling margaritas from the truck and the mini-market, we did more sales than our best week at this location.
He continued, “It’s like everybody’s dream to run the ice cream truck of alcohol and ring the bell to sell to your neighbors. The very first week we were delivering off of a truck, we did 2.5 times the normal revenue we did in a week [before COVID-19]. Between the selling margaritas from the truck and the mini-market, we did more sales than our best week at this location. Just stupid numbers.”
Vida had planned on continuing this for a month or six weeks and thought they were going to be able to pay all of their bills for all of the restaurants no problem.
However, the popularity not only attracted all of the neighbors, it also brought the attention of the police department. The county shut Vida down because people were buying margaritas directly from the truck and said this was not allowed. Vida then had to deal with the liquor board and the health department who serves as the enforcement agency.
Andrew vocalized their position, “If you aren’t reading hundreds of pages of these releases, the specific guidance has been very raw, and everybody operates differently. The information out of the state and out of the Fed has been mixed and match and we understand it’s a pandemic. So we’re balancing both legal and ethical things to do during a pandemic.”
When asked if the government and health department were flexible in finding a resolution, Andrew said, “They totally worked with us because we were doing it right. We had spacing and masks and were sanitary. So they were actually learning from us as they were telling us we couldn’t do it. Per normal, we were moving way faster than the government moves.”
Third Pivot- Cocktail Delivery Program
Vida made their case to the county that if they follow the protocols laid out by the state, they are allowed to deliver alcohol. The county granted them permission under the following model:
- paying online (contactless transactions)
- age verification
- has to be delivered to their property
After getting shut down, Vida knew they had to focus on delivery and didn’t want to use third-party services for both fees and legal issues. While many states do not allow mixed cocktails, Maryland has been more lenient.
John Miller, Vida's other owner and head of their fresh cocktail production program commented, “We get distilled booze in, we mix it with fresh produce the state approves and then seal it in a food-grade container. We produce in a health department approved environment that they inspected and signed off on.”
Since then, Vida has worked on picking off small neighborhoods at a time to service them with margaritas to-go in a limo bus that drives around for the deliveries.
“We’re in the hustler factor right now. We’re trying to target as many people as we can without sacrificing the quality of the product. Our first go around, we didn’t have route-routing software and we weren’t populating orders the right way and it took 1.5 hours for 22 stops. It drove me bonkers and we dug deep into the technology side of the business. We mashed them all together to be efficient between geo-zones by day and using an app that maps our stops”, says Andrew.
Last week, with only 24-hours of promotion, Vida was able to secure 107 orders and was able to execute them in three hours and 10 minutes, cutting their average delivery time in half to under two minutes per stop.
A 16-oz cocktail sells for $15 on their site that is enough for roughly two and a half servings. A six-pack can be purchased for $80 which is the equivalent of $10 off for the six-pack. They have two options - margarita or ‘purple drink’ which is half margarita and half sangria. The minimum order is $30 which helps keeps it the number of orders more manageable and Andrew estimates their average order is around $55.
When asked why he believes their program is so popular, Andrew offered a few of his thoughts, “Anyone that knows Vida, knows that we batch our margaritas as often as possible. We make them every day. Sometimes you may be getting a margarita that was made three hours ago. There is nothing as fresh that you can get other than maybe a cocktail kit but you have to make it yourself. This is the closest product you can get that is identical to the margarita that they would be having at the bar. The cost is also very consumer-friendly at about $6.50 per drink. We didn’t change our base tequila that is a very high-quality tequila. People see it’s just not a novelty, the value is there. It’s the same product they get in the restaurant. We’re also hustling. We’ve been outside our market several times. We’re at a 15-mile radius of our market and tomorrow we’re going 39 miles away from this location to serve the Baltimore market where our other store is located but is currently shut down. Last week we ordered 96 cases of limes, normally we are ordering about 30 cases in the summer months”.
Vida estimates they are hitting over 20k people on social media every day due to quarantined people posting their latest delivery on Instagram and Facebook.
Andrew claimed, “We’re not surviving, we’re thriving in this market. That being said, we have two locations out of four (their fourth location Fox's Den- a gastropub pizza concept) that are shut down. The numbers are doing well but it’s not full retail numbers for all four locations.
Andrew says, "We’re a small company, we only have 10-15 people working right now out of our normal employee payroll of 120 people. The law might change where we have to stop immediately if they disallow the deliveries of alcohol. If that happens, we'll look at reopening or whatever we have to pivot to next".
When asked what Andrew would like as support from the government moving forward, Andrew stated, “This shut down has shown that people can innovate. Business is not going to be as usual. The old stigmas that have been around forever have shown that they are not hurting anyone like alcohol delivery or cocktails to-go. I’m a huge proponent of protecting the local businesses and the local restaurants. The government should let the innovation happen because this industry has changed over the last ten years between cuisine and price points; they have to let the innovation happen or we will see restaurant shutdowns like we have never seen before. And that will trickle down into the commercial real estate market and they don’t want that.
Slow-rolling a restaurant is a death sentence. If we’re going to focus on slow-rolling the restaurants, I would rather focus on margarita deliveries. If you’re going to open, if only have 25% capacity, you still might need three cooks because you have three stations. A lot of people are going to choose to not to open until we get back to normal.