EAGAN, Minnesota – When the El Sazon Tacos & More takeout location opened in suburban Minneapolis, co-owner Karen De Leon half expected to see tumbleweeds roll through the rented facility.
“When we first walked in, it was a ghost town in there,” De Leon recently told The Food Institute. The restaurant operator recalls thinking, “’It doesn’t look like anybody comes here.’ So I was very skeptical about it – it was definitely a risk. That was the scary part.”
Eventually – after weeks of 12-hour days – the De Leon family had a hit on their hands in early 2022.
And the innovative takeout location has only gathered steam. Despite establishing business in an easy-to-overlook BP gas station – and having no legitimate signage – El Sazon’s Latin food has drawn rave reviews (like 4.9-star rating on Google).
Here’s how it was accomplished.
The Turning Point
Not long after El Sazon’s takeout location opened, a customer praised its food on a community Facebook page. A wave of positive word-of-mouth followed, swirling around the Twin Cities metro like snow.
Positive reviews inspired the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to write an article on Karen and Cristian De Leon’s passion project – including a note on El Sazon’s periodic five-course dinners held inside the BP station. That article caused reverberations that spread far, Karen said.
“An article came out and they (described) it as like a speakeasy,” Karen said of the restaurant she co-owns with her husband. “We’re a hidden place and that gives it an aspect of fun.”
“We’ve had a lot of press do stuff on us – 15 different news articles – and we’ve had (customers) of all kinds. We have an older generation, and a younger crowd (that has) done stuff on TikTok” to spread the word, Karen noted. “It’s a pretty broad customer-base.”
Now, entering El Sazon’s third year at its gas station location, the business caters events like weddings. It hosts the acclaimed, five-course meals that include a wide array of mocktails. And, three months ago, the De Leons even opened a sit-down restaurant – El Sazon Cocina and Tragos – in south Minneapolis.
Underrated Keys to Great Takeout
The Tacos & More location features a massive, touchscreen ordering kiosk. Yet, the De Leons encourage their employees to engage in friendly conversation with neighbors that pass through the gas station. That, too, has helped El Sazon build a loyal following.
“What set us apart – because you can find tacos anywhere – was our customer interaction,” Karen said. “We make friends, and we have a lot of regulars. People want to be helped (and) we want to explain what we’re serving.”
Customers can’t get enough of El Sazon’s quesabirria – featuring Oaxaca cheese – or its preservative-free tortillas (“Tacos travel well,” is Karen’s main explanation for the food’s popularity.) Orders are consistently served piping-hot, in compostable containers. And El Sazon’s expansive menu, developed by Cristian De Leon, is a hit, judging by the steady stream of customers lined up inside Eagan’s BP station.
Tacos & More initially used 25 pounds of meat per week for its birria dishes; now, that number has reached 200 pounds.
What began as strictly a family affair has taken off, allowing the De Leons to hire a staff of six that largely operate the day-to-day business at their gas station location.
“The place runs itself now,” Karen De Leon said. “We’ve been pretty blessed. Things have kind of skyrocketed.”