El Jefe’s Taqueria founder John Schall is in a food fight with the City of Boston, and he doesn’t want it to play out quietly.
His beef? Schall wants a license to stay open until 2 a.m. at his newest location on the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets at the bottom of a building owned by Emerson College. With about 1,000 students living in dorm rooms above his restaurant, he tells me, the taqueria can almost be like a "kitchen in their house.”
But as he goes before the city’s licensing board on Wednesday to seek approval for later hours, he’s not holding his breath. He has been told that the Midtown Park Plaza Neighborhood Association will oppose the application and push for a midnight closing.
He wouldn’t feel so pessimistic if not for what the association did to Tasty Burger, which is opening nearby on Winter Street. Like El Jefe’s, Tasty Burger wanted to serve food until 2 a.m. in a neighborhood known for its night owls — college students, theater patrons, and club-goers.
But the neighborhood group in November wrote a letter to the Boston Licensing Board saying that it had "major concerns” about the proposed 2 a.m. closing. Most of the other nearby fast-food restaurants close by 10 p.m. and having Tasty Burger stay open later would "put a strain on public safety resources due to increased loitering and criminal complaints,” it said.
You can guess what happened next: Tasty Burger amended its application to a midnight close and got its license.
The Boylston Street shop will be the first El Jefe’s in Boston. Not for a second did Schall think he would have a problem staying open past midnight in a city that is desperately trying to shed its "no-fun, go-to-sleep-early” image. By his count, there are already 11 places within a quarter-mile of the new El Jefe’s that serve food past midnight.
"I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t know the whole time I had negotiated this lease that I was going to face this opposition,” said Schall.
The lease with Emerson College allows for a 2 a.m. closing subject to city approval. The college wants to be a good neighbor, so it’s siding with the neighborhood association.
Peggy Ings, Emerson’s vice president of government and community relations, said the group has "worked tirelessly” for over two decades to clean up the district.
"You have to respect that,” she added. “We want to do what the neighborhood wants to do.”
The neighborhood group, I am told, was particularly concerned about a restaurant with late hours in a building that housed freshmen.
As for the city, the licensing board examines requests for late night hours on a case by case basis.
"Safety and the quality of life of residents are paramount to the board,” said licensing board chairwoman Kathleen Joyce in a statement. "Each applicant is considered on its individual merits, and the board takes all testimony and feedback submitted under advisement when determining whether to grant the requested closing hour.”
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the licensing board is fuddy-duddy all the time. The board did recently grant a license for Insomnia Cookies to stay open until 3 a.m. at its new downtown location on Bromfield Street.
So how is it that cookies are OK after midnight, but burgers and tacos not so much?
In the case of Tasty Burger, I imagine it had something to do with the fact that it has a beer and wine license, and having another establishment serving alcohol in the wee hours made the neighbors nervous.
But El Jefe’s won’t be serving any alcohol. Just tacos, burritos, fajita bowls, and chicken tortilla soup served out of a 1,200-square-foot space that resembles a Mexican street taqueria found in Oaxaca or Guadalajara. The restaurant will also have its own private security from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
By the way, if you’re wondering how a white guy came to peddle tacos, Schall’s head chef is Fidencio Saavedra (who is Mexican) and assistant chefs are Cesario and Fernando Sanchez (both Dominican). They all recently became co-owners with Schall in the business.
Here’s why Schall is fighting so hard for a 2 a.m. closing: His business model is built on feeding the late-night crowd. In Harvard Square, where he operates from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m., the restaurant’s busiest period is from midnight to 3 a.m.
"This is not students falling in drunk from the bars,” he said.
Well, maybe some are unsteady on their feet. But the point Schall is trying to make is that his customer base is diverse. Think hotel workers, hospital staffers, office building cleaners, and restaurant employees all looking for a real meal when most other places have closed.
Schall said he’s had no problems in Harvard Square since he opened in 2015. Nicole Murati Ferrer, chairwoman of the Cambridge License Commission, confirms that based on the most readily available records dating to 2016, there have been "no incidents or violations” at El Jefe’s.
If there’s any question El Jefe’s would be a good neighbor, Schall has submitted eight letters of recommendations, including one from Y2Y Network, a youth homeless shelter, that is around the corner from the taqueria in Harvard Square, and another from the Harvard Varsity Club, which has been raising money for football player Ben Abercrombie, who suffered a catastrophic injury in his first game for the Harvard Crimson in 2017.
Every December, Schall donates a day’s sales and tips to a fund that helps pay Abercrombie’s expenses. So far, El Jefe’s has raised more than $80,000.
If the City of Boston doesn’t grant Schall the 2 a.m. closing, he still wants to open in Boston by the end of March. He still plans to be a good neighbor and community partner.
It can’t be this hard to serve burgers and tacos past midnight in downtown Boston. If we want a late-night city, we need to invest in it. Saying no so often kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.