The Tacos Are Coming! The Tacos Are Coming!
The Arizona Taco Festival is almost here! Around the state, luchadores are oiling up their muscles, Chihuahuas are putting the finishing touches on their pageant costumes, guitars are getting tuned, and most importantly, delicious taco recipes are being finalized and perfected. This marks the eighth year of the festival, one of the valley’s most popular and highly anticipated events. And we have two taco-loving, out-of-towners to thank for it: co-founders David Tyda and Rick Phillips.
David and I sat down over tacos (of course), and he gave me the scoop on the evolution of the festival and possible future opportunities.
HOW IT STARTED
I asked David how he initially got involved in the festival, or what spurred the idea. “I was the editor of Desert Living Magazine (Rick was in publishing as well) and when the recession hit, magazines were going out of business, so we started a food blog called EATERAZ. And—“he laughed, “we immediately learned that two grown men can’t make a business out of living off of a food blog. So we threw a barbecue festival in the middle of downtown Scottsdale.” David and Rick were expecting about two thousand people, but got the shock of their lives when over ten thousand showed up. “It was a hot mess of an event,” he said. “Like the worst day of our lives. But the very next day we said, we have to do this again—but with tacos.”
Why tacos? “For two reasons,” said David. “I’m from Chicago, Rick’s from New York; whenever family and friends would come into town, they’d say, where can we go for good tacos? So, it lends itself to Arizona. Also, we felt like tacos weren’t even starting to tip the scales in terms of their assimilation into food culture. I tend to use the phrase: Tacos are the world’s most adopted and adapted cuisine. Like, nobody’s adapting spaghetti. It’s spaghetti! It will never change! There are versions of tacos that will never change, but people will always be reimagining.” Have no doubt, you will find reimagined versions of the hallowed taco in spades at the taco festival. Which brings us to the event itself.
ARIZONA TACO FESTIVAL
The first Arizona Taco Festival debuted in 2010, and, as David reiterated, he and Rick had no idea what they were doing—they were magazine guys, not event guys. But they had vision, determination, and the perfect formula for a successful event. The winning components were, “A competition for cash, two-dollar tacos, crazy entertainment—we decided to bring in lucha libre and sort of punk music, and margarita bars, and made it a culinary festival, but also an entertainment-driven event.”
Once again, they were only expecting a couple thousand people and over ten thousand showed up. They definitely had a knack for getting the word out and appealing to what people considered a good time. “Over the next couple years we moved the event to Salt River Fields because we outgrew the site we were using. All these other taco festivals have popped up around the country—many of them replicating our formula; the Chihuahua competition, the tequila expo, the lucha libre, the two-dollar tacos; so that has made us work even harder to make sure that this one is the biggest and the best.”
David credits much of their success to their collaboration with R Entertainment, a national entertainment and events company based in Scottsdale. “They have the staff and infrastructure to pull off a multitude of festivals, whereas Rick and I have one director of operations, a designer, and that’s it. So we can’t do dozens of festivals throughout the year, but with R Entertainment we can! So we formed a partnership with them to do taco festivals in other cities. We just did Cincinnati and Detroit, and Nashville and Des Moines are coming up.” They typically do four to ten events around the country, but Phoenix’s, of course, is the best (I may be biased).
WHAT TO EXPECT
This year they’re doing something a little different, based on feedback from online reviews and comments from past festivals (which David reads). “It’s a cashless festival,” David explained, “We sell tokens and people use those around the festival to buy drinks and tacos, but the lines to get tokens can get really long. It’s also kind of a pain when you’re fumbling in your pockets with a margarita in one hand and a taco in the other. So this year we’re using RFID wristbands. You connect your credit card to your wristband, and then you just wand it in front of these portals.” Making it even easier, if you buy your tickets online you can pre-register your wristband, “Meaning you can take the ticket number, link it to your credit card, and when you get there and they give you your wristband, it will already have your money on it! You can even set it to auto re-load, so you can put twenty bucks on it and every time you hit twenty, it will automatically reload twenty bucks. And then you’ll get your money back after the festival for your unused funds.”
David and Rick: God bless you. You really couldn’t possibly make it any easier for us to have the best time possible at this taco-fest. And we thank you for that, because with fifty participating restaurants, food trucks and caterers, ain’t nobody got time for lines!—(where they can be avoided, of course; when it comes to the restroom, you’re on your own). In addition to the restaurants peddling tacos, there will be approximately fifty other businesses set up; market vendors, local businesses, dessert and beverage vendors, apparel and accessory shops, etc.
David feels that one of the best parts of the festival is the diversity of the participating restaurants. “I think people really get excited because of the mixture of options. You’ll have a place where the owners don’t speak a lick of English—who serve like legitimate, authentic, al Pasteur carne asada, and they’re set up next to a fancy resort chef; who’s set up next to a trendy new place in Arcadia.” Whatever your preference in tacos, you’ll find it there. You’ll also find, among myriad other things, a VIP area, live music, eating contests (notice that was plural), interactive photo booths, the legendary tequila expo, the Chihuahua beauty pageant, awards ceremony and an awesome kid’s zone.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR TACO FEST?
“In planning for this year,” said David, “I realized that next year there need to be some major entertainment shifts. We’ve been doing lucha libre, the hot chili pepper eating contest, the Chihuahua beauty contest—I’m not saying those things will go away, but some things need to get reimagined.” I asked for specifics, but got a coy response along the lines of, ‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you’.
What David could tell me more about is his vision for the future on a grander scale. “You have all these cities doing festivals. In Arizona, the Arizona restaurants participate. In Detroit, it’s the Detroit restaurants. I want a taco contest where they fly in from all over the world. The World Taco Finals! Rick is actually in Vegas today talking about where we’re going to do it, and that info will be forthcoming, which will be really cool.”
But for now, what will be really cool, is your attendance at the Taco Festival this weekend. Buy your ticket, program your wristband, and loosen up that waistband, because it’s taco time!