Leo Kremer, Co-CEO of Dos Toros: Part 1

This is Leo Kremer (pictured left) and his brother, Oliver Kremer (pictured right), the founders and co-CEOs of Dos Toros. Although this fast casual taqueria now boasts 20 locations between New York and Chicago, Leo insists that because they didn’t know much coming into the food industry, they’ve kept their “beginner’s mindset” over the years, which has allowed them to see Dos Toros as a constantly evolving business, even as it’s success has grown. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, the brothers got really interested in burritos because they were delicious, affordable and available everywhere. It wasn’t until years later that they became aware that this wasn’t the case in other parts of the country and started digging into this idea. They began asking friends who lived in New York what options were available to them and did some scouting themselves. The more they looked, the more they realized that there was no really high-quality, California-style Mexican food outside of California. And although they had no experience in the food industry, it seemed like a really big opportunity for someone to take advantage of the market. Being that they were expert consumers when it came to burritos, they decided to create a business that appealed to their core customer: themselves. Since Dos Toros’ beginning to their present day operations, Leo and Oliver have continued to keep things really simple and really focused, uncompromising in their expertise and concentrated on being the best supplier of San Fransciso-style taqueria food, from their recipes to their service to the tightness of their burrito roll.

Leo says that he and Oliver were outsiders in the food industry when they decided to start Dos Toros (named for himself and Oliver, “the two bulls”) at the end of 2008 and officially opened their first location in October 2009. Leo was just transitioning out of his career as a musician (he had played for a few rock bands, including Third Eye Blind), which he says was awesome but ultimately didn’t fulfill all of his professional passions, and Oliver was right out of college. Both brothers were unsure of their next step and decided to pursue the burrito business idea that they had been talking about for years. They had always had a good relationship and always had the idea that they would try to start a business together but Leo says that it was the timing, their passion for burritos and the opportunity that presented itself that made it the perfect combination of factors to jump in with both feet. He doesn’t believe that either of them would’ve had the courage to do it on their own so they took a chance on it together and moved to NYC. They decided on a fast casual concept because it was similar to the taquerias in the Bay Area that they visited growing up where you order at the counter and sit down or leave. And also knowing that they didn’t know anything about food service, they didn’t want to overreach and add more complexity to the business than they could manage. Since they always thought of themselves as their main consumers, most of the restaurant design came from their own personal taste and aesthetic sensibility, which Leo says they got from their mom. Their mom is a visual artist so she’s very conscious of paying attention to how things look and feel around you, so they already had a vision in mind for their brand when they were opening their first location. They wanted to create a cool and inviting space that they would want to spend time in, in a neighborhood that they might find themselves in, so the location scouting and design process was very introspective. However, they did take a lot of other people’s opinions into consideration, showing friends and family locations that they were thinking about and design layouts and the logo that they were playing with, which was really helpful in getting to the final decisions that were made. But they knew that the core of the business would focus on the food and doing it really well. So whenever they could go simpler, they went simpler so that they could focus more on quality. 

They began reverse engineering recipes to create their menu, incorporating flavors that they grew up eating and visiting every taqueria that they could find to make notes about who had the best rice, beans, tortillas, hot sauce, etc. They spent countless hours taste testing different ingredients and understanding what they wanted each ingredient to do in the burrito before making a final decision. In some cases they were able to get the recipes pretty far just with their own testing and finding recipes and tweaking them but they did work with a couple of different chefs that they found before finding one chef in particular on Craigslist who played a big role in helping them develop their recipes. He helped them make sure that the recipes could scale up the right way and be repeatable for when they were cooking in large batches. He also helped them understand what equipment they would need to cook the food and what that cooking process would need to be since the professional equipment allows you to create heat really fast. However, Leo says that they continue to tweak recipes and introduce new items (like their habanero hot sauce and the farro, their whole-grain alternative to rice) because it’s the details that add up to the big differences. They constantly try to get feedback from customers on what they can improve or what’s bugging people the most that they can fix. But no matter what, they always focus on keeping their ingredients and menu items simple. They believe that doing a few things the best way possible is what makes them a cut above their competitors.

In the same way that they’re focused on simplicity from a recipe perspective, Leo and Oliver focus on simplicity from a team perspective as well. From training to on-boarding to career advancement, they want to make every process as straightforward and accessible to every employee as possible, because they believe that people are the key to success in business. Every employee in every store is cross trained across every different part of the restaurant. Not only does this make employees more flexible with their skills, it also keep things fun and interesting because they’re able to do different tasks and jobs throughout the day, which keeps it from getting boring or frustrating. Also, Leo says, it doesn’t seem fair to have one person stuck washing dishes all day and not interacting with customers. Leo admits that they’re getting better at training employees and helping them get on a career path without making employees have to guess about how they can grow from their current positions. They’ve started offering formal certification opportunities for employees to learn new skills, get certified on them, get a raise and get promoted. They also have a whole video training site that they use for employees to practice their skills. Each store has a CO (coach operator) rather than a GM (general manager) whose responsible for hiring new team members, training them and promoting them. They call them COs because they believe that coaching is the key piece of leadership and they empower their employees to train and coach their coworkers in a positive way, rather than from a power standpoint. The COs are then assisted by the distract manager, who oversees multiple locations and works one on one with the CO in a collaborative way when and if more complex issues arise that the CO needs help handling. Leo and Oliver are very focused on their team and creating a positive work experience because they realize that beyond the recipes and the store locations and the designs, it’s all about the people on your team and inspiring them and making them excited to be a part of the business. Employees that are happy at work and excited about what they do will only transfer that joy and excitement to customers, which creates a real relationship between the employee and the guest.

For Leo, the most rewarding and the most challenging part of the business is the people. It’s so rewarding for him to see an employee whose so good at their job and inspiring to other team members grow with the company. “Promoting people who really deserve those promotions is the best feeling you can get, I think”, he says. And then also seeing a guest whose a really excited about the food, who comes back a few times a week, who your staff really enjoys seeing and who enjoys seeing them is so rewarding as well. Building themselves into someone’s life and having people use words like “love” when they’re talking about their product or their staff is very meaningful to him. However, it’s also a challenge for Leo to push for excellence but be realistic. Every time he walks into one of their locations, it’s hard for him not to notice every little thing that’s wrong and want to fix it immediately. But communicating that to the team in the proper way and getting them to focus on these little things without seeming unappreciative of everyone’s hard work is a difficult line to walk. As a business owner, it’s hard for him to navigate that balance, especially as they grow and things are being communicated down a chain of command, rather than directly from him to the team. As a leader, he’s constantly working on that balance to make sure that things are being communicated properly but that he’s still leaving room for empowerment and improvisation among his employees. He and Oliver were both concerned that as the business grew, it would become too corporate or reduce their authenticity. Alternatively, they’ve found that their growth has actually increased the strength of their culture. Their food has also gotten better (creating better recipes, using better equipment, sourcing better ingredients) and they’ve only gotten better as leaders. As the business continues to grow, these are all factors that they hope they can preserve.

Identifying what’s right for you and your business is pivotal to Leo and he urges other entrepreneurs to stay true to their passion and their mission when starting a business. However, he advises, it’s not enough to be skilled or passionate, you need to have really identified a need that’s not being met or not being done to the level that you think it could be done. If you only have a desire to be your own boss, that can often get you into trouble. You need to make sure that there’s a case for the business that you’re getting started and that you have a clear plan to meet that need. If you keep a focus on your core customer and make sure everything you do goes back to solving a problem for that customer, then the growth will happen naturally. As for the future of Dos Toros, Leo says they’re really excited for the growth that they’re seeing and the best part about it is the opportunities that it creates for their team members to grow as well. They’re hoping to keep growing at a sustainable rate in their current markets and organically expand into new markets nearby. Right now they’re interested in areas like Philly, DC, Boston, Nashville, Austin, Charlotte, Miami and Dallas but there are so many cool places where they think Dos Toros would be a good fit. The most important thing to them is that they succeed wherever they go, so they’re focused on getting it right with their location choices and going at the right pace for them.

Interested in learning more about Dos Toros?! Check out our blog next week to read the second part of our #IMadeYourFood feature where we will be highlighting one of their longest tenured COs!


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