Social Entrepreneurism: Tacos 4 Life

Above: Harding student Alex Stroud takes orders during opening week in the Searcy location.

Here at the Waldron Center, we frequently encounter students with ideas for a business that integrates their talents and values for a higher purpose. In the past decade, the United States has seen an increase in the number of such startups, described by business academics as “social entrepreneurism.” This missional approach to business is designed to create a revenue stream to attack on a community problem.

Ashton and Austin Samuelson of Conway, Arkansas, are Searcy’s newest and most successful exposure to the business-as-mission concept. Inspired by the plight of the homeless while living in Los Angeles, they developed a vision for helping to solve what they see as the “most solvable problem in the world: hunger. With their slogan “Buy a meal. Give a meal. Meal for meal,” the first Tacos4Life Grill opened in Conway on June 9, 2014. The chain now serves Tex-Mex-inspired fast casual cuisine in colorful, funky surroundings in Conway, Little Rock, Benton, Fayetteville, and most recently Searcy at the location on East Race Street across from Unity Medical Center.

The concept is simple: For every every taco, quesadilla, salad, or rice bowl sold, the restaurant donates 22 cents to its partner Feed My Starving Children to purchase, pack and distribute MannaPacks to areas of high food insecurity. A MannaPack is a proprietary blend of rice, soy protein, dehydrated vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients designed to meet the nutritional needs of malnourished children. Each vacuum-sealed MannaPack, on display at every Tacos4Life, provides six meals.

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The concept has become so successful that there are locations opening this year in Jonesboro, Springdale, Rogers; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Frisco, Texas. Franchise opportunities are available to mission-minded investors.

Each year, Tacos4Life publishes dates on their website, and people sign up in droves to help assemble and pack the meals for shipping. The process is called a MobilePack, and it’s a joyous community happening. The system for mobilizing volunteer labor is highly refined for quality control and efficiency. At last year’s Conway MobilePack, 2,438 smiling school groups, families, homeschoolers and grandparents, wearing gloves and hairnets, packed 558,144 meals — enough to feed 1,529 children in Swaziland every day for a year. After brief training and sorting into teams, volunteers at processing stations, energized by music and goodwill, measure and weigh ingredients, vacuum seal plastic bags, and pack them into boxes. At the end of the two-hour shift, the crew watches a video offering a boots-on-the-ground perspective about the need in the Swaziland where these very meals will eventually be unloaded from a shipping container and served. When you leave a MobilePack, you feel like you’ve spent two hours doing something that matters.

So let me offer a couple of suggestions for you. First: Eat at Tacos4Life and get acquainted with their excellent food, mission and cool vibe. Second: Take part in a MobilePack. The next MobilePack will take place at the Little Rock Convention Center on Sept. 16. Check out this link, grab some friends, and volunteer. You’ll be glad you did.

*Feed My Starving Children has the highest (four-star) rating on Charity Navigator, spending 87.3 percent of its total expenses directly on the programs and services it delivers, rather than on overhead.

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