The brothers behind Dos Toros on vision, inspiring people, and why you need the perfect playlist

“Everybody likes to have a place to think, to meditate, to eat a burrito.” – Novelist Sherman Alexie

Is the burrito the perfect food? Brothers Leo and Oliver Kremer certainly think so though they may be a bit biased considering they are the founders of Dos Toros, one of the most successful taquerias in the US currently. The San Francisco natives grew up on a diet of burritos and Mexican street food so starting a business around this type of cuisine seemed like a natural move after Leo wrapped up a temporary gig playing bass for Third Eye Blind (more on that later.)

However, bringing this authentic West Coast-style menu to rushed and stressed New Yorkers was a bold move especially without any formal business training or education. But their vision was clear as they saw a need. “All of our friends who moved to NYC complained bitterly about the lack of high-quality burritos. We figured at the very least we could market ourselves to west coast expats and build a group of loyal guests that way,” said Oliver.

But nonetheless, the Kremers opened the first Dos Toros in 2009 in Union Square after raising some money from friends and family and tapping into some of Leo’s Third Eye Blind profits. Though they were on one of the quieter streets the endless appetites of college students on a budget always finds a way as does a very positive review from The New York Times. Dos Toros now has 22 locations (17 in NYC, four in Chicago), launched an e-commerce arm, and is on target to hit $60 million in sales for 2019, a $10 million increase from 2018.

Ladders spoke with the brothers Kremer about making a name for themselves in a competitive landscape (hello Chipotle), working with family and how music plays an important role in a business.

dos toros burrito
Courtesy Dos Toros

Growing up did you think you would ever start a business together?

We always got along well, but I don’t think we were intent on starting a business together. When the taqueria idea took shape we both were really excited about it, and I think neither of us would have had the courage to do it alone.

What was the hardest part about starting Dos Toros? Tell us about how you got initial funding?

The hardest part was overcoming our utter lack of experience. Every aspect of setting up the business, defining the brand, hiring and training team members was completely new to us. Our initial funding was a combination of our own funds and a small group of family and friends.

Why do you think the company succeeded (the New York Times review helped clearly) but really what made you survive and then thrive when Chipotle was very close by and bigger?

I think we had a clear point of view on our product, a great location, a network of friends to help spread the word, and just day in day out work to connect with guests and continually tinker with and improve our offering.

Leo, what career lessons did you learn from your time with Third Eye Blind that you could apply to the restaurant business?

Well, I certainly take the playlist seriously. I think music matters a lot in creating a great atmosphere. Also, the importance of being friendly and polite. When you’re touring in a band, you’re in close quarters for months at a time and just being nice to each other goes a long way. In business, just being nice and thoughtful with your team can take you a long way in building a strong culture.

Do you have very different work styles, or do they harmoniously balance each other?

We really enjoy working together. There’s a lot of skills overlap but Oliver is definitely stronger with numbers and operational insight. I’m probably a little stronger on language and brand stuff.

Where do you see Dos Toros in five years?

In multiple cities, suburbs, maybe even airports?! We think the opportunity is enormous, but the execution of growth always needs to be tempered by not getting ahead of our team and talent base, supply chain, brand awareness, and ability to get great locations. Certainly, growing for the sake of growth is a real danger. We’re not a social network, nothing magical happens at scale. Every location needs to be successful in its own terms.

dos toros bowl
Courtesy Dos Toros

How have you dealt with challenges or so-called “failures” in your career?

Try to learn the deeper lesson of why something failed. Then don’t hang your head or punish anyone needlessly. Just move forward.

Can you describe the work culture of Dos Toros? What are some things you have implemented to help the culture?

We really pride ourselves on a strong culture of respect, playfulness, and opportunity. You can’t just conjure culture out of thin air, it’s the sum total of all the little things you do and say every single day.

What are your morning routines?

Coffee plays a prominent role for me. Oliver probably works out. We try to meet up and think a little bit about the day and week before we jump into more specific work, so we can define what the larger priorities are.

What would your advice be for someone looking to enter this industry and start their own food chain?

You need passion, vision, and insight into an unmet need. And you must enjoy working with and inspiring people. Hospitality is at its core a people business.

Tell us about your philanthropic work?

We like to partner with organizations that have an impact in our community and where we can do more than just donate money, by volunteering or adding value in another way. For instance, we work with an organization called Getting Out Staying Out (GOSO) that reduces recidivism by supporting pathways to jobs for former felons. In addition to donating money, we directly employ a number of graduates of their program. It’s such a great feeling to know your company is making a difference in someone’s life. I think it makes everyone on our team feel good to know they’re a part of that.

dos toros food
Courtesy Dos Toros

What is your favorite thing on the menu?

I’m old school. Carnitas burrito with melted cheese, rice and pinto beans, guacamole, tomato salsa and both our verde and habanero hot sauce (which we call “double dragon”)

Do you ever get sick of eating burritos?

No way! I think it’s the perfect food. Delicious, wholesome, portable, and a good value. The burrito is where it’s at.