Techno Tacos

Benjamin Galaz has come a long way since 1994, when he started selling Sonoran-style hot dogs from a trailer on Tucson’s South 12th Avenue.

November 11, 2017

Issue 27: November/December 2017Table

Fusion cuisine, point-of-sale software, Google trends—these are not terms that spring to mind when you contemplate hot dog vending. But, although he is best known as the founder of BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, Benjamin Galaz has embraced all these concepts—and taken them to the next level.

No question: The 45-year-old entrepreneur has come a long way since 1993, when he drove a food cart north from Sonora, Mexico.

Galaz’s latest venture, a pan-Latin seafood restaurant called El Berraco, is a prototype for one that he plans to introduce to Miami as soon as he irons out the wrinkles in Tucson. In 2018, after he completes a warehouse that will supply ingredients to all his local dining venues, Galaz will create an app to allow locals to order directly from this commissary.

Benjamin Galaz is best known as the founder of BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, but he’s also embraced technology and “narrow marketing” at his latest venture, El Berraco.

Galaz, who dropped out of high school in Tucson in 11th grade, has long been fascinated by the potential of technology to increase food sales. “Twelve years ago, I hired someone full time to teach me how a computer works,” he says. He means that literally. Galaz explains, “I didn’t want to just learn how to use a computer. I wanted to understand what’s inside, how a processor functions, what memory, networking, and hard drives are, and how to integrate all that into a restaurant business.”

One way he has done this is with a software program that rotates pictures of menu items across the flat-screen TVs in all his restaurants. “People order what they see,” Galaz says. “If we have an item that is not selling, we ‘expose’ it via these wall pictures. If you see a fish taco 10 times and plain fish only once, you’re going to order the taco.”

Galaz calls this approach “narrow marketing,” a way of reaching a specific audience by understanding how the brain works. “Marketing is not only about design. It also needs to address the subconscious,” he says. “I’ve been studying this a lot for the past three years, and it’s been working really well.”

He has the statistics. His restaurant software tracks the sales of each item from a remote monitor with a graph that’s refreshed every 15 seconds. After five minutes, Galaz can see the line representing the highlighted dish spiking.

In total, he says, revenues have risen by 200 percent since he introduced the program.

If this all seems rather futuristic, that’s the point. Once, Galaz was shown a sales report from a previous year. He says, “I thought, ‘Why do I want to see what happened in the past?’ We need reports from now, in real time. If you do that, you can make decisions that change the future.”

Galaz does some of the tracking himself from his office near Park Avenue and 19th Street, where state-of-the-art computers are dedicated to each restaurant, but he also delegates the task to employees. Other staff members code the software he designs, keep on top of social media, and create graphics and videos. Galaz has eight people working on the tech aspects of his business in his main office in Tucson and another nine in Ciudad Obregón, the second largest city in Sonora.

Of course, without an excellent product, all the sales wizardry in the world wouldn’t get people to bite.

Take BK’s Sonoran-style hot dogs, which won the Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” smackdown against those of another local institution, El Güero Canelo.

Although he was born in Tucson, Galaz spent his early years in Nacazori, a mining town in Sonora about 1.5 hours south of Douglas. His uncle owned a restaurant, but two or three times a week, young Benjamin would frequent a cart that sold hot dogs wrapped in bacon and topped with grilled onions, fresh diced tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, and Salsa Huichol. These fancy franks were a departure from the standard ballpark variety that were popular throughout Mexico; the cart’s owner, Rolando Mendivil, had brought them up from El Chinal, a small town in southern Sonora. Mendivil eventually taught Galaz how to prepare them and helped him raise the money for his own mobile unit.

By the time he was 16, Galaz had built two food trailers from scratch, doing all the designing and welding himself. He sold seafood from one, burros and hot dogs from the other—but not the Sonoran variety. He didn’t want to compete with his mentor on his home turf, and besides, he was U.S. bound.

But when he arrived in Tucson, Galaz was disappointed to learn that his mobile unit didn’t comply with local health department codes; among other things, he needed to install triple sinks. Galaz couldn’t afford to make the adjustments, so he decided to start over. To raise money, he sold the trailer to Daniel Contreras, his sister’s neighbor and a high school friend. He also taught him some of his recipes.

Contreras soon started his own Sonoran hot dog and taco business, El Güero Canelo. Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer parked in front of the original South 12th Avenue location, with the sign, “This is where we began 10-20-93.” You can also find a picture of it on El Güero Canelo’s website, fronted by a bearded, shaggy-haired young Contreras. But it’s the hot dog stand built by the owner of El Güero Canelo’s rival, BK.

In June 1994, Galaz started selling Sonoran-style hot dogs from his new trailer, along with carne asada tacos; he claims to be the first in town to grill the meat on mesquite charcoal. “I was also the first one with a free salsa bar,” he says. “Normally you would pay extra for things like guacamole and jalapeños, but I didn’t charge any more.”

Galaz soon built a second mobile unit where he sold caramelos and quesadillas. In 1995, he bought a vacant space on South 12th Avenue, parked both food trailers there, and built a roof over them for shade. He eventually installed a separate kitchen, refrigerator, and restrooms.

For his next BK, which debuted in 2005, Galaz converted an existing central Tucson restaurant. He offered table service, as well as a drive-through window, and beer, wine, and cocktails.

It was another decade before Galaz marshaled everything he’d learned about the restaurant business, computer technology, marketing techniques, and dining trends to create an entirely new concept. El Berraco opened in 2016 in the former El Mezon del Cobre space, about a block north of the second BK, and highlights Pacific Coast seafood dishes that go from Mexico to South America—and beyond. Galaz took his culinary cue from Mexican dining trends. “If you go to Mazatlán or Puerto Vallarta, you see far more fusion cuisine, influences from other cultures—sushi and even Italian. Tucson Mexican restaurants have been serving the same seafood preparations for a long time. I thought we were ready for something fresh and different.”

He chose a chef from Hermosillo, Claudia Lopez Burquez, to create the menu. Some dishes, like the whole marinated, grilled octopus, are south-of-the border classics that you won’t find anywhere else in town. Others are original creations: The trio of ceviches, for example, includes a spicy one, mixing scallops and shrimp in a shot glass rimmed with parsley; a sweet-hot one with tropical fruits; and a milder fish version inspired by Peruvian ceviche. Even the smallest details are a little off the beaten path: The salsa, made with yellow chiles, is creamy, not crudo, and the moist rice that accompanies most entrées is laced with cilantro.

The chef now comes in only a couple of times a month to check on the menu but the quality control remains constant. All members of the kitchen staff who prepare food have a tablet with the recipes for each item. This allows them to check ingredients, proportions, and cooking time.

But even before you sit down at El Berraco, you know you’re in for an unusual experience. The decor is as fresh and different as the food. Galaz used all the metalworking skills he had honed on his food carts to build a metallic frame and interior details to transform the restaurant into a faux submarine, replete with portholes in the door and windows.

Why a submarine? A nautical theme was a natural for a seafood restaurant, and Galaz wanted something original (“Hard to copy,” as he put it). A Google search led him to a submarine—and to the restaurant’s name. El Berraco, which roughly translates as “badass,” puts the underwater theme into a context far less innocuous than, say, Disney’s Captain Nemo. The Colombian slang term “berraco” turns up frequently in such narcodramas as the “Two Escobars,” “La Reina del Sur,” and, of course, “Narcos,” which feature submarines custom made to smuggle drugs.

Think of it as an insider reference to an outlaw culture along the lines of rap music, not as an encouragement to purchase illegal substances.

In October, the submarine became the setting for what Galaz calls an “afternoon nightclub.” Every Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., computer graphics on the flat screens simulate a submarine descent. The lights dim and then refract with colors, the music amps up, the cocktails flow. At 6 p.m., faux steam and fog signal an ascent, and the restaurant becomes a restaurant again.

El Berraco on First Avenue.

Asked what demographic he was aiming at with this venture, called @3, Galaz says, “My age. Really, from the 30s to the 60s. People who don’t want to stay up late because they have things to do the next day can party in the afternoon now.”

What’s next? A third BK with an open kitchen will be built next to the warehouse commissary on Park and 19th Street in 2018; in total, Galaz says, he plans to have seven BKs in Tucson. For now, the Miami El Berraco is the only planned export, but in the future “we’re going out.”

He adds, “I love what I do. It’s not just selling food, it’s doing it differently, and doing it right. It’s having the best kitchen, the best recipes, the best customer service, and also having a real view of what’s going on, not relying on guesswork.”

Galaz sees his efforts as benefiting the Tucson restaurant community in general. “Every time I start a new project, I try harder to make it unique, authentic. If owners want to top me, they have to be very creative. They have to up their game.” ✜

Edie Jarolim is a freelancer who writes mainly about food, travel, and dogs. Her latest book is a memoir, Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

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