The Conversation: Tacofino and Superbaba co-founder Ryan Spong is hungry for locations

Spong has helped launch both food tech companies and some of the province’s most popular brick-and-mortar eateries. COVID forced a pause, but despite that economic turbulence, the serial entrepreneur is back to biting off everything he can chew

You’ve just opened Tacofino locations in Squamish and Burnaby. Those were your 10th and 11th, and you have plans for two more this year, in White Rock and Langford. Why the aggressive expansion now?

We were planning on expanding pre-COVID—things were moving along. One restaurant per year for five years or something like that. There were things we were playing around with in terms of style, as every Tacofino feels a little bit different. But also figuring out if we were going to expand beyond B.C.—we were thinking about Toronto. Then the pandemic hit and that all stopped.

Toronto-fino? Really?

Cord Jarvie of Meat and Bread had helped build a couple of Tacofino locations, Oasis and Ocho. He was back and forth to Toronto. But then everything went sideways and everybody went into survival mode. Over the last year or so it’s felt like we’re on solid ground. There are threats of a recession, but what we do is pretty accessible. In the world of $45 duck sandwiches, we have a $14 burrito—a good lunch or dinner for $20 with a drink. We’re feeling good about the product we’re putting out, and relatively good about the world.

Would you say you’re about back to where you were pre-COVID days?

I would say we’re probably up a bit as a company. It varies by location. People still haven’t returned to Gastown in the same way, for a variety of reasons. The financial district in Vancouver is still recovering as well—not everyone has returned to work.

You talk about making sure all the locations have their own vibe. Is that challenging to do when you’re opening up so many so quickly?

If you try to tailor it to what’s happening in that specific neck of the woods, you can maintain a level of personality and autonomy. We’ve always wanted to get into a neighbourhood and give it what it wants. In Squamish, we sponsored a big skate competition and the location launch centred on a burrito you could take with you. People there are driven by the outdoors—they want to get in, grab something and then enjoy the surroundings. But we’re wholly owned. We have the luxury of growing at the pace we want. We don’t have to just pump out carbon copies.

Squamish has a unique vibe, but what about Burnaby or White Rock? How do you capture those places?

They’re both going to be a grab-and-go style. I don’t know if I can comment on what Burnaby is, but when you think about what else is going on there, you’ve got the big chains—Cactus, Earls—all right there. Can we do something cool and different with some personality? That’s what we’re looking at. I grew up around Metrotown. There’s a lot of grab-and-go stuff you can get in the mall, but not a lot of options outside of that.

And what about Superbaba? You have locations in Vancouver and Victoria that seem to be extremely popular. Are you expanding that brand?

We’re looking for a second location in Vancouver as we speak. I think it’s going to be a bit smaller—somewhere that wouldn’t be competing with the other one; something relatively urban. We’re expecting that it’s going to be a tough year and maybe we’ll see more places come available. Funnily enough, despite whatever’s gone on, there aren’t a ton of awesome spots out there. It’s shocking how tight the rental market still is.

You do see a lot of empty storefronts, though.

Do you? Maybe I’m just picky.

You sold off corporate catering platform Foodee to French food services giant Sodexo in 2021. What led to that decision, and was it a hard one?

It was a difficult time for restaurants. It was quite difficult personally because our business was DoorDash for the office, basically. We specialized in knitting together multiple restaurant orders to satisfy large groups. That business was transaction-based—you can imagine what the pandemic did to our top line. There were seven bidders, but I feel really blessed, to borrow a hashtag, that we found Sodexo.

And you’re still doing work for Sodexo, right?

Yeah, I’ve got a role there. I’ve handed over leadership of Foodee to former COO and now CEO Barb Anderson. I’m the executive VP of retail food strategy and corporate development. I lead culinary and restaurant partnerships and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

You’re also one of the advisors for the beverage startup Sipply, and you’ve got your own investment company, Mainstreet. Anything interesting you’ve got your eye on with that right now?

Food-wise, not recently. It’s something I’m starting to think about in terms of making angel investments and other food concepts as well. I really enjoy the process of taking something from zero to one. I love Tacofino and Superbaba, obviously. I’ve always got other genres of food that I’d like to explore as well in the back of my head. It’s not out of the question for the future.