ART BY WACSO / PHOTO BY BECCA DILLEY
Tom Basgen lives in Saint Paul and does politics, he was a TacoCat investor and an old friend of the crew. These are his reflections on Tacocat founders Dan Laeger-Hagemeister and Tristan Jimerson, and the business that they built, from its founding in Spring 2014 until its closing last weekend.
Taco Cat is closing forever and I will eulogize them because we can’t have the big ugly blowout goodbye party that they deserve without risking Covid.
Taco Cat was Dan and Tristan’s baby. They were (and remain) two idiots who had been pretty worked over by life and the restaurant industry. They were tired of the bullshit and so they decided to risk it and try to do it better. They succeeded.
I met Tristan working at the Chatterbox in Highland. He and I were the same level of miserable there and quickly bonded. After a time he quit and escaped across the river to Sea Salt. He was a big part of the reason those two restaurants shared roughly half their staff and made two communities of friends and coworkers into one.
That crew and community taught Tristan enough about cooking and misbehaving that he and Dan ALLEGEDLY started an illegal taco delivery service out of their apartment. Every Saturday night bike messenger friends would allegedly gather for drinks and partying. Tristan and Dan would allegedly hold court in the kitchen. Allegedly a burner cell phone would ring. Allegedly details would be taken. Allegedly a bag of messy but delicious tacos would be handed to a mildly inebriated bike racer.
People loved it. As word spread about the secret taco service, the Saturday night parties were less festive and more focused. Everyone made jokes about how they should do this “for real.” Dan and Tristan called their bluffs.
Including my own. In the dead of winter 7 years ago Tristan sat across from me at my kitchen table and asked me for a chunk of money to start a legit Taco Cat. I asked him why he wanted to do this. He sighed a big Tristan sigh and said: “I want my dumb friends to have health insurance.” I replied, “That’s worth it,” and signed a check, no strings attached. He returned the money the next year with some serious interest. I protested and he replied, “You’re worth it.”
The restaurant Taco Cat built was an aspirational thing. The men who owned it were men who had suffered as service workers themselves. They suffered for Taco Cat too, Dan used to, and probably still does, get there at 6 in the morning to do the lion’s share of the prep himself. Tristan manned that grill til 1am when they still did late night. Whenever I worked with them on hard days there they’d finish by saying “At least I’m doing it for myself.”
They watched their friends and loved ones suffer in the restaurant industry too. They did their best to build a place that nurtured the people who worked there instead of using them up. I watched the core group of Taco Cat grow as people from broke, hungover, bike scum, into stable, happy, bike scum. But that wasn’t Dan and Tristan, those two just set the stage. So many came in as a screaming mess but built themselves up there by supporting and loving each other. Nobody got rich, not even Thousand Dollar Dave, but everyone paid the bills. There are happily married Taco Cat couples and chubby cherubic Taco Cat babies. Some of those babies aren’t babies anymore. I’m getting old.
But shit happens and the world changes. DoorDash and Uber Eats found a way to make every restaurant deliverable. All they had to do was exploit people hurting for cash and burn hundreds of millions of dollars of investment every year. Margins got thinner for Taco Cat and the aspiration of the place became harder and harder to maintain, and now we’re here.
Even Taco Cat’s death aspires to a more humane restaurant biz. They aren’t disappearing overnight and fucking over their workers. (Looking at you Chatterbox.) They put 6 weeks on the board and told us: “Come say goodbye. Sorry about all the times we forgot your chips. We love you.”
We loved you too Taco Cat.