StartUp winner T-Town Tacos gives young people in transition a hand up
T-Town Tacos focuses on employment of homeless and transitional young adults
By Rhett Morgan Tulsa World July 25, 2017
Kelly Blanke greets passers-by warmly as he hawks breakfast tacos at Fifth and Main streets in Tulsa.
It is the 20-year-old’s first day on the job, and his boss likes what he sees.
“I don’t imagine he’ll be in the program too terribly long,” said Wes Rose, who heads T-Town Tacos, an outreach of Youth Services of Tulsa. “He’s very high-functioning, very confident. His customer service skills are awesome.”
T-Town Tacos, which last week captured the recently added Social Enterprise segment of the Tulsa StartUp Series, focuses on improving the employment of homeless and transitional individuals ages 18-24.
“The commonality between all the people we employ is that they are receiving services in some way from Youth Services of Tulsa,” Rose said. “The most common way is housing assistance.”
Transitional “just means that there is not a permanent residence,” he said. “It may be that they were staying on people’s couches. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they were sleeping under the stars. It just means that their housing was at risk — housing wasn’t stable.”
Blanke has worked previously at a metal finishing business and a couple of food companies. His immediate goal with T-Town Tacos, he said, is to begin prioritizing becoming a young adult.
“I need money, and I like to make people smile,” he said.
T-Town Tacos was launched a few months after YST, a United Way partner agency, received a $100,000 social innovation grant from the Tulsa Area United Way in early 2016, Rose said. T-Town also is assisted by another partner, the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, which offers its facilities to the startup free of charge.
The food bank’s resident chef, Jeff Marlow, developed the taco stand’s recipes, and the pantry’s Rachel Pool is T-Town’s kitchen manager, Rose said. He and T-Town helpers serve breakfast tacos four days a week at various street corners downtown, using a bicycle-powered food cart to cater to smaller businesses every Tuesday.
For winning the StartUp Series segment, Rose received a number of perks, including $2,500 for product advancement and a three-month membership to 36 Degrees North.
“The most flattering thing that I see is that we have regulars,” said Rose. “The taco stand is very new for Tulsa. … It takes a little while to get that customer’s first experience.
“But they come back. It’s grown slowly, but it’s grown steadily.”