In 2006, Mike Rypka had little more than a trailer, a Vespa and a meager menu offering 10 to 12 different kinds of tacos when he started selling snacks outside of the Austin City Limits festival grounds.
It’s been ten years since he started serving Torchy’s Tacos in Zilker Park as an official food vendor, and it’s an event he and his staff look forward to every year — not only for the obvious perk of seeing artists like Billie Eilish, Cardi B and Guns N’ Roses, but for facing the challenge of moving 23,000 tacos and a metric ton of queso over ACL’s two weekends.
“We love music, obviously,” says Rypka, who kicked off his National Taco Day on Friday (Oct. 4) on the patio of Torchy’s South Congress location. “It’s a fun festival, and the community, it’s just something fun to be a part of. It’s fun for our crew. It [offers] a lot of camaraderie for our staff. It’s a lot of fun serving tacos out there.” (The South Congress Torchy’s is the restaurant that’s closest to Zilker Park, and not far from the very first Torchy’s; there are now 15 outposts in the greater Austin area alone.)
Of the 36 food vendors on site at ACL 2019, only one of them, Shake Shack, is a national brand; the rest, including Torchy’s are local to Austin, though Rypka has expanded his operation with restaurants in Arkansas, Colorado and Oklahoma. ACL attendees won’t get a taste of the full Torchy’s menu at the festival, they’ll have the opportunity to sample some of the chain’s greatest hits as well as some offerings that aren’t available at the restaurants. This includes a lobster tostada and the Washingtonian, a former Torchy’s Taco of the Month stuffed with pulled pork, pickles, barbecue sauce, grilled onions, avocado and cheese they’re bringing back due to popular demand.
“In the past, we just featured tacos that were only on our menu,” says Rypka of the special, Only-at-ACL treats. “Now we’ve kind of used it as a place to have a little bit of fun. People are familiar [with Torchy’s]; they’ve had our tacos and they’re here for the festival, so let’s do something fun. The Washingtonian — we didn’t run it as a Taco of the Month this year and a lot of people asked for it, and we said, ‘Alright, we’ll give it to you at ACL.’”
As for other fan favorites, Torchy’s will definitely be serving up the Trailer Park, their best-selling fried chicken taco smothered in a creamy poblano sauce that Rypka has dubbed the “quintessential Torchy’s Taco.”
Torchy’s prepares for major events taking place in Austin — such as South By Southwest, which sprawls across the city every March; Formula 1, which brings hordes of racing fans in late October or early November; and University of Texas football games — by limiting their all-day menu to accommodate an uptick in customers. ACL presents a unique challenge, in that certain days of the festival could see larger crowd swells than others, which is why they keep tabs on ticket sales and the lineup to prepare.
“You never want to run out of food,” says Scott Hudler, Torchy’s chief marketing officer. “We track how ticket sales are going and who are the headliners [to see if] we need to go heavy on one day or another. Last year, Paul McCartney — we knew that was a huge day, because he doesn’t play as much as some of the other folks that you’ll see. Friday and Saturday, with Guns N’ Roses and Childish Gambino, those will be really big nights.” (ACL hosted McCartney’s sole festival performances for 2018, and Childish Gambino is making a much-anticipated return to Zilker Park after an injury forced him to cancel his 2018 headlining set.)
ACL festival attendees will have two chances to pick up a bite from Torchy’s: In addition to their outpost in ACL Eats, Torchy’s will have a 42-foot taco truck set up by the Barton Springs exit at Zilker Park to accommodate those with post-show cravings.
“The diehards who stay for the headliners, they’re coming out at 10:00, 10:30,” says Hudler. “People aren’t thinking as much about food as they’re going in — but when they’re coming out, they definitely are.”
Austin City Limits festival takes place in Austin’s Zilker Park Oct. 4-6 and Oct. 11-13.