After about 10 years of owning Aldo’s Italian Table & Bar with her husband, Aldo, Kelly Musico was looking for her next step. She became a certified yoga instructor — but that didn’t stretch her skills and ambitions far enough. So when a restaurant space opened up a few doors down from Aldo’s, she saw an opportunity to explore her love of Tex-Mex cuisine, a passion her husband didn’t share.
“He’s never liked Mexican food,” says Musico, 50. “So I said, ‘I’m going to open my own restaurant, and I’ll be your competition.’ That’s how it started, and we had no idea that it would grow into what it has now.”
That first location of Tacos & Tequila Cantina opened in 2013 on Davis Boulevard in South Naples. A second location at Pavilion in Naples came in 2016, then one in Estero followed that near the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University in 2018. A fourth location, at Founders Square in North Naples, is scheduled to open in April. Musico declines to provide specific revenue figures.
Musico credits the restaurant’s support of the community for much of the success. “Wherever we go we try to be involved in the community as much as we can, whether it’s hosting community events or donating when people in the community are in need,” she says. “I think that is huge.” She also created the Taco ’Bout Community Foundation in 2020, which supports various causes in Southwest Florida and beyond.
"I think that creating a workplace where people want to come is going to set us aside and make us different from our competitors." — Kelly Musico, Tacos & Tequila Cantina
Providing a fresh, healthy product at a reasonable price to customers, which include families, college students and workers, has also helped the restaurant company thrive. “They go home and feel like they’re satisfied they received quality food that’s still affordable,” she says.
From the beginning, Musico has taken the approach of putting her employees first. Her staff now numbers about 250, and some employees have been with the company since the first restaurant opened. Everyone who works 32 hours or more a week is eligible for any benefits the restaurant offers
“I like to consider our employees family, and I think that’s a huge part of our success as well,” she says. “They’re the backbone of our business, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without some great people behind me.”
“We try to create a culture in each of the restaurants where all the employees are working together as a team and they feel heard,” she continues. “I think that creating a workplace where people want to come is going to set us aside and make us different from our competitors.”
Even so, Musico still faces the staffing challenges other Southwest Florida restaurants are experiencing. Because line cook positions have proven especially hard to fill, Tacos & Tequila Cantina has launched a new initiative where newly hired line cooks have an opportunity to win a culinary institute scholarship valued at $30,000. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, have a GED and stay with the restaurant for 120 days working a minimum of 35 hours a week. Musico originally conceived of just one scholarship, but if there are multiple qualified candidates, she’s willing to revisit things.
“Over the years I’ve seen a lot of people come in that are extremely creative and passionate about what they do,” she says. “I wanted to be able to provide something for people that want to further their interest in culinary or hospitality school. … I thought it was something we could offer to our community. It can be a very rewarding career in the hospitality industry, … but you need the right tools. And I want to able to offer that.”
The pandemic, of course, has required an ongoing ability to pivot and adapt. “I am very particular about our food quality and the freshness of our food,” says Musico. “One of the biggest challenges was having to adapt to takeout, and we did. But I had to learn to let go of some of that control; maybe the lettuce won’t be straight on the taco when they get it home. That was very hard for me, but we adapted and takeout (is now) a huge part of our business now that I’m very grateful for.”
Tacos & Tequila Cantina is poised for even more growth thanks to Musico’s decision to partner with the Naples-based Hoffmann Family of Cos. in 2020. The Hoffmann conglomerate, which operates in fields from wine to golf and bus tours to gas stations, is providing capital to fuel more growth for Tacos & Tequila. Musico calls the partnership, instead of growing through franchising, an “opportunity to expand as quickly as we wanted to.” That’s in addition to the chance to work with David Hoffman, a Naples entrepreneurial icon, who she calls “a wonderful man and absolutely brilliant when it comes to his business endeavors.”
Musico and her husband will continue handling day-to-day operations of the restaurants. They hope to open another location in Southwest Florida in 2022, possibly in Cape Coral or Fort Myers. They’re also looking at opportunities out of state. They have friends in popular locales like Asheville and Savannah, while Hoffmann has business interests in Illinois, Missouri, and Michigan.
“It’s going to be very important to have someone that we know in an area where we’d like to expand,” says Musico. “I don’t think I would go in blindly.”
Over her years in the restaurant business, Musico has learned the importance of things like following a business plan and creating a structure to deal with seasonality. “It is a hard business, but you can’t get sucked into it and you have to keep your head on straight,” she says. “A lot of people don’t make it because they don’t.”