Melted and Taco Local

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

“At the end of the last year of culinary school, I was serving tables part-time, and I was at home with our new daughter. Then the owner of the restaurant I was working at came to me and was like, ‘I got you scheduled at 11:00 on Sunday for Mother’s Day.’

“My availability was Monday, Wednesday, Friday nights. I was like, ‘I don’t have availability on Sundays. I can’t.’

“So he was like, ‘Everybody works Mother’s Day.’

“I was like, ‘Well, I quit.’

“I turned around and bought a food cart that had been on Craigslist. That was the catalyst. I couldn’t work for someone else any longer.”

*roll title sequence

Wheels on the Ground
starring David Rodriquez
story inspired by Jon Favreau
based on real events

David Rodriquez owns a handful of Madison’s favorite food trucks. With Atlas BBQ primed to become David’s next success story, we look to Melted and Taco Local to tell the story of a man abandoned by the conventional restaurant scene at the end of his culinary education. Less dramatically, we look at someone who embraced opportunity as they took the plunge to own their own culinary business.

Photograph by Sharon Vanorny

The year: 2015. David had just left his job. He bought Melted, purveyor of specialty gourmet sandwiches, with a partner, who would soon be out the picture due to their own life commitments. A typical day, “I’d be there at 5:00 in the morning,” says David. “I would do all the prep, hitch the cart up, pull it in front of the kitchen, load it all up, drive to the Square, park it, unhitch, park the car, get back to the car, fire up the grill, get the register ready, open the door, put the sign up, work the lunch rush by myself.”

He joined Let’s Eat Out, and soon found himself serving 10 people at a time until selling out of the roughly 120 servings he’d prepared. “It’s a young man’s game. I definitely couldn’t do it anymore.” But times seemed…manageable. He was his own boss, but the boss was a hard ass.

“With one food cart doing all of those things, it was $120,000 in revenue that first year. I didn’t pay myself in salary, but I think I made $11,000. I’m doing all this work, but I’m not creating enough revenue to make a living. Two options are to accept that or to grow.”

He chose the latter but wasn’t immediately prepared for how hard winter would be. Though the cash flow slowed, the expenses persisted. David recalls one of his first larger expenses. While in the tow truck he used to pull the food cart, “I got pulled over, and the officer was like, ‘Your rear bumper and that hitch are about to rip right off your truck. You need to turn around, and you need to go buy a truck.’”

So David went from one cart to a cart and a Toyota Tacoma.

Photograph by Sharon Vanorny

Over the next few years and additional food carts, the need to rent a large kitchen space became more and more important. In 2020, David bought Gaylord Catering with every dime that he had. “I needed it. The owner wanted out. He wanted to sell.”

What seemed like a good idea at the time had to face the test of COVID. David again found himself with two options: shutter the business he just bought or drag it through the pandemic. “We kept everybody on, and we found money. We found revenue.” Any way to make a dollar was pursued alongside humanitarian efforts, like packing 100 meals a day for homeless people staying in hotels during the pandemic.

So David went from one cart, to a cart and a Tacoma, to a cart and a Tacoma and a catering business and a commissary kitchen.

Melted might be best known for its lip-smacking grilled cheese, but its evolving smashburger has sparked a lot of interest in recent years. “It’s really become our best seller,” says David. “You don’t make burger patties. You make balls of beef. Little butter down on the grill, two balls on the butter, salt and pepper on the balls, then you take your spatula and smash the burger down. It gets a crispy, kind of fried outside. It’s cooked through. The juiciness of the burger comes from all the butter. We’re very proud that the burgers we make look just like the pictures we take for the menu.”

Photograph by Diana Rodriguez

International and Melted have been working together to create some new and exciting burger flavors. For starters, they’ve done a croque madame burger; burgers with ham, eggs, and bacon; and a burger with a salad on top. Of course, they have the more traditional black and bleus, bacon burgers, and burger burgers as well.

The pandemic also saw the opening of Taco Local, where David touts his four-ingredient taco philosophy. No more than four, otherwise things get lost. “I don’t think there’s a restaurant like it in the city,” he says. “It’s not just about the food there, and the food is great. We’re really striving for fresh food, so everything is light and fresh. Made daily. All the picos. All the sauces.” Get there at 8:00 a.m. for a no-expense-spared breakfast taco and your favorite coffee drink.

But everything about David’s life isn’t roses and gravy. David shared with me the realities of being a business owner during these times. The numbers he shared sounded impressive until he broke down the costs of everything needed to run his business, including paying his employees fair wages. For him, the right thing and the necessary thing need to overlap.

In a sense, David embraces the burden of the roles he takes on. He believes in the importance of the work he’s doing. The food is a great start, and his culinary background has given him the tools to be successful, but there’s a larger lesson he’s teaching his kids. “You’re not just working for your family; you’re working for your community.”

*roll end credits

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Melted and Taco Local

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