A series of interviews with some friends of BAGGU.
Our Friend Oscar
Oscar Michel is fun to talk to. He's also half of the duo behind the restaurant TACOS OSCAR, in Oakland, California. He welcomed us to his colorful spot to discuss just how he found his way to restaurant ownership, among other things.
Keep an eye out and you'll notice Oscar shows up in some of our photography on baggu.com, modeling things like this DUCK BAG:
ANNA: Was food something that was always important to you? What inspired you to pursue it?
OSCAR: It just happened. I worked at Doña Tomas in college, where I was a line cook. I started off as a bartender/barback one summer, and business got really slow in the fall. They’re like “Hey, you can either quit because there’s no work or you can work in the kitchen. There’s an opening”. And I already knew all the kitchen staff and we got along really well, like “Come on, come work with us”. So I said “Yeah!”. And then I started cooking and it was cool. I learned how to make tortillas by hand there. But they were being served with plates of food rather than in taco form. A band that I was in at the time started getting really popular and I kept having to ask for nights off to play shows. And eventually, we started touring a bunch. So I had to quit that job.
ANNA: What was your band? What music is it?
OSCAR: It was this band called Gris Gris, that was around for a bit, in the Bay Area. It was psychedelic, folky, noisy stuff. It was all over the place, but it was fun. Got a lot of cool exposure to the world from it and was able to travel and see what other cities look liked, and what other foods were like.
For me personally, whenever we toured, I liked going to eat at weird places or asking the locals, “Hey, what’s good food around here?” Get to a club and you load in and the sound engineer says, “Oh, you should check this place out.” I was always like, “Let’s go get pho, I hear there’s a cool pho place in this little dingy part of Memphis.” And so I always equated dining out with entertainment basically. And I always liked the practice of going to a cool restaurant in San Francisco before going to the Great American Music Hall, like, “Where are we going to eat before the show?” And I got inspired to do the fried egg tacos because of breakfast tacos in Austin, and started doing my own little spin on it. But yeah, the band eventually fizzled out. I made a million friends and most of them I’m still in touch with.
ANNA: So, Tacos Oscar started as a pop-up. When did it start?
OSCAR: I was working at Urban Ore in Berkeley forever and I’d just been traveling back and forth to LA a bunch, to see the family. I remember going to eat tacos at spots down there that were doing hand-pressed tortillas, which was a new thing to me back then. Up here I was making hand-pressed tortillas at Doña Tomás. And I always asked the owners, “Why don’t you guys ever make tacos with these tortillas?” And they’re like, “Oh, there’s no money in tacos. We sell plates of food. That’s where you make the money”. Long story short, I was in LA, and I was like “These taco spots are super amazing for their tortillas alone. And then, on top of that, nobody does that in the Bay.” So when I came back from one of these trips, I bought a tortilla press down there and I was like, “How hard could it be?” I’m gonna make some fillings, have some salsa, some garnishes. I’ll buy some masa at La Finca, which is where Doña Tomás got their masa, so I already knew the product pretty well.
OSCAR: And I kept talking about how I was going to start selling tacos—I was just doing stuff at home at this point. And my coworkers at Urban Ore were like “Dude, why don’t you just do it? Buy a taco set up and—”
ANNA: “Just do it for other people, not just your friends”, kind of thing.
OSCAR: Yeah, they’re basically saying, “Stop talking about it and do your thing”. And the first event that I did was when my friend Christopher opened a music studio in West Oakland. And he’s like “Hey, we’re going to have our grand opening. I want you to make tacos. I’ll buy your equipment”. So we went to the Colosseum flea market because I had been there and I saw that there were stalls that sell cookware and street vendor carts and planchas and stuff like that. So I bought this shitty three burner camp stove thing, which we still have upstairs, which we still use to this day. And this super heavy griddle, that covered two of the burners and a steam table situation to cover the third burner. I said “All right. I’ll make the tortillas here. Keep the hot food here. There you go”.
OSCAR: The day before, I went to Berkeley Bowl and bought a bunch of supplies. And I made a bunch of fillings and salsas and I was like “It’s not that complicated. Why am I so nervous? We’re just making tacos here”. And so I made everything, everything tasted great. Drove all my crap to the studio, set up in a tiny little corner, where there was barely any room for me, but just enough.
Christopher bought all the equipment, all the food, he paid for everything. He was like “I just want you to give food out for our grand opening”. To make it more clear, I was making food to give away. And next thing you know, there was a line of people, most of whom I knew and they’re like “Look at this, you do tacos now”. I still didn’t have a name for the concept yet. And people kept asking me “How much? How much?”. And so we had a tip jar, and people were just throwing cash in it. And, after a few hours, we ran out of food and I had like $700 tips. And I was like “I could do this again”.
And people were noticing and saying things like “What is this? You’re making the tortillas? What the fuck? That’s so weird”, but it’s so not a weird thing anymore. It wasn’t even then, people just weren’t used to it. Like “Why do you do all that? Why don’t you just get the packaged stuff and heat them up?”, I was like “That’s what makes us a bit more special”.
ANNA: Tell me a little bit about the space.
OSCAR: This story is pretty crazy. So, I did that event, the recording studio party and it was a fucking hit. At that point, this was just an alleyway, with dumpsters. And I’d walk by it every day, because I lived on 38th and Webster for a long time. And I was like “That’s such a cool, weird space. There should be something in there.”
I was friends with Catherine, the owner of Subrosa, the coffee shop across the street, and she was like “Hey, you should come do that in front of my coffee shop”. And I was like “I don’t want to get arrested. That’s crazy. Why would I? I don’t have health permits, blah, blah, blah”. She’s like “Who cares? just do it”. So my first official pop-up, where we actually sold food, exchanged money, was literally across the street from our restaurant today. I was frying eggs to order, which is insane, we had a line of people around the block…
ANNA: That is so crazy.
OSCAR: …on a fucking tiny griddle. We didn’t even take people’s orders down—it was crazy. A friend of ours, Miles, he stopped by and he was like “How are you keeping track of the orders?” Like, “I don’t know, we just call the names out?”. He’s like “Here”, he took a moleskin out of his shirt pocket and said “Fucking write shit down”. He was on his way to go work at Chez, and he was just laughing, like “You guys are crazy. What the fuck?”. I was like “Yeah, that makes sense. We should definitely keep track of who bought what”.
Anyway, I would walk by this place all the time. I somehow got ahold of the landlord’s assistant, Tim, who still works for him. My original idea was to have a bunch of picnic tables back here and some bleachers and just have a taco truck. Finally, I got a meeting with this dude. At the time, I was nowhere near ready to do anything food related. This is before the taco pop-up days. So this is years before that, I was still touring a bunch. So, the idea for this space, I had it in my head way before I did tacos.
I had been on the road a bunch and I started noticing shipping containers being used for coffee shops or clothing stores. I studied city planning and I was super into architecture. They’re just like building blocks that sit on each other and you can turn them in different directions and cut parts out of them. All these ideas were floating around in my head. And then I had a meeting with this guy, prematurely. But I had no interest in opening the place yet. And I remember going to Commonwealth, which is still there, getting a beer. And I was like “What do you think about using shipping containers?” He was like “Oh, the city would never go for that. How would you even get them in that space?” I was like “I don’t know. How do people get shipping containers on ships? A crane?”.
And he was like “Yeah…”. But we started drawing on a little piece of paper like “Do you have the dimensions for this space? Yeah, that could work. But I also like your idea of the taco truck and the bleachers”. And so that meeting ended and he was like “Well, you should talk to some people about money. Maybe we’ll get a project going”. And next thing I know, I hit the road again. Forgot about it.
ANNA: Because you were in the band?
OSCAR: Yeah. Came back to town and I saw that there’s a fucking shipping container in the alleyway. I was like “What the hell is going on there?”
ANNA: Yeah, that’s right. And there was a juice thing that was going to happen, but it never happened.
OSCAR: It did happen. So, the landlord ended up going forward with building this space out. I remember telling Catherine like “Motherfuckers, they’re doing it. This is totally what I suggested and they’re fucking doing it. That’s crazy. That’s cool. I wonder what it’s going to be”. I wasn’t like “That was my idea”. I was just like “I’m glad they’re doing something with it. Maybe the juice bar will sell beer and I’ll come get one”.
And she’s like “Don’t worry, dude. If it doesn’t work out, you never know. You might be ready at the right time to take over the space”. And that’s completely what happened. The juice bar wasn’t doing very well, at any rate. Not to knock them, they’re super nice. The concept just didn’t work.
I remember they reached out to us like “Hey, do you guys want to do a pop up back here?”. At this point, when the juice bar was going, we were going full steam as a pop-up. Popping up all over the place, catering stuff. We were at the Starline, every Monday. And so, when the juice bar owner asked me, “Do you want to do a pop-up?”, I was like “That’ll be weird. That’ll be some full circle shit”. I remember looking at that space and thinking something should happen back there. So I was like “Yeah, let’s do it”.
OSCAR: At this point, we had a following and we set up right in that corner, behind the wooden fence. And the place was packed. The owners were like “We’ve never seen this many people come back here, ever”. And the landlord, he’s an architect, was super bummed because he had this business in his property that nobody wanted to interact with. Because architects want humans to interact with their buildings, live in them and occupy the space and it wasn’t happening. So we started talking, I was like “First thing I would do is paint this shit to be interesting looking, friendly to the eyes”. And I was inspired by just going to Mexico a bunch, and that’s where my family is from. Everyone’s houses are different bright colors.
OSCAR: The juice bar shut down here and we were still doing our pop-up. And at this point we were like “It would be cool to take that space over, convert it into what we need.” Thinking back, there were so many people involved and we had this angel, this dude, Wiley Price, who was an architect for a bunch of fancy restaurants. He worked on Ramen Shop. But he liked us so much as people that he just did a shit ton of work for trade. I think we owe him $14,000 in tacos. He’s got an account here.
ANNA: [Gesturing at tortilla press] Where did you get that?
OSCAR: This, I got in LA at the piñata district downtown, there’s little stores where you can go buy all this stuff to start a food cart. These are really quality, heavy duty. And then there’s the white one over here.
I actually have one of these at home. But yeah, this is basically the cornerstone of the restaurant. Well, this is the first piece of equipment that produces a taco, a tortilla gets pressed, it gets cooked, and eventually the taco comes out finished over here. It comes down the line. So yeah, these are the crucial tools. And I have another red one, a blue one, upstairs.
ANNA: They’re such beautiful objects!
ANNA: How has it been, I guess, for you and for the business during this time of COVID?
OSCAR: We were closed for three months and our friends S+M Vegan, who now have their own restaurant, Lion Dance Cafe, were using it because I didn’t want to have the place just be empty. Also, I was just worried about people breaking in and so we wanted to keep a presence and they were just a two person team and I was like, “Y’all can work here together. You’re in your own pod and safe.” And they were just really nice people. So yeah, we closed for three months. Everybody pretty much went on unemployment and except for one of our coworkers who’s undocumented and so I was trying to raise money to help pay him and pay the rest of the staff just some extra cash for living. I was back here, screen printing shirts the whole time and selling them on the internet and shipping them all over the place.
ANNA: Was that really successful though? The shirt thing?
OSCAR: Yeah. I managed to raise like $14,000-
ANNA: That’s amazing.
OSCAR: It was cool. And it gave me something to do — otherwise it was pretty depressing, to be like, “I had this thing that was super successful and now I have nothing.” And we were just too sketched out to do take out stuff at that point so we just played it safe like, “Let’s just take a break. We can afford it.” Luckily we had money saved up. And food costs, we always kept pretty low and we were just lucky enough to be busy all the time. This place was packed every night. Sometimes it was really stressful because it was too packed and there were people everywhere and there’s not enough seating.
ANNA: It’s good. High energy, good vibes.
OSCAR: It’s a good problem.
ANNA: I mean, personally, I also feel like the universe was asking us to slow down.
OSCAR: Yeah. We’re privileged enough to be able to donate money to causes still. We could be keeping it and stacking paper as they say, but we donate all of our Tecate sales to this organization called CALMA and they work with day laborers and immigrants and asylum seekers. And so those people are hurting badly because nobody’s hiring day laborers anymore because they don’t want to have a stranger in their yard. So knowing that and knowing that we can spare that money, I’d rather donate it to somebody than to save it for whatever.
ANNA: That’s incredible.
OSCAR: And the t-shirt money too. While we were closed, George Floyd was murdered, we were raising money for Black Lives Matter and we’re a business that takes money from the community, we should give some back. I think we’re just going to keep doing what we do and try and give back as much as we can because it’s just the responsibility that we have as business. We’re part of the fabric of the community and the city.
OSCAR: Having studied City Planning in college, you look at what makes a neighborhood, there are the restaurants, the stores and parks and if you take an aerial shot of this neighborhood, certain places would blink or send out a beacon that show that this is an active communal spot, I would like to think that we’re one of the blinky spots on that map, that is a place that people are attracted to.