College of Charleston alums Jen and Mike Seltzer want to provide everyone from busy parents to lawyers to students a taste of that far away land with fast casual franchise Maui Tacos. Their 200 Meeting St. location — which hosts a soft opening Wed. Dec. 5 and a grand opening Thurs. Jan. 17 — will be the first mainland location to open with the full support of the chain's owners (there's a Monroe, La. location already open, but they signed their lease after the Seltzers, for the record).
Opened in 1993 by famed Hawaiian restaurateur Mark Ellman, Maui Tacos has been rated one of the top Mexican restaurants in the country by Zagat. According to an April 2018 Business Journals article, a dozen stores will open in 2019, with Hawaiian locations in Maui, Oahu, and Hilo, and mainland locations ranging from North Carolina to Oregon.
So how did this Lowcountry couple — with a combined background of real estate, food and bev, and quality control for a prestressed concrete company — acquire this little piece of Hawaiian/Mexican heaven?
"We were by ourselves in Ohio — my parents were in Florida, my brother is in Mexico, we said 'why are we still here?,'" says Jen, an Ohio native. The couple had relocated to the Midwest a few years ago when their children were little, both working for her family's small concrete company that would eventually sell to a huge corporation which, Jen says, "had no soul." "We decided we would never work for someone that didn’t value employees and customers and customer service," she says.
When the couple found out about Maui Tacos (they've been to Hawaii several times for vacation, and Jen's brother was married in Hawaii), they knew that the company, which is still run by the same creative team even after 25 years, shared their vision: make good food, serve it quickly, and treat everyone with warmth.
In advance of securing their Charleston franchise, Jen and Mike traveled to Hawaii for two weeks and worked — from front to back of house — in several Maui Taco locations. "Even though it's a franchise, we get a lot of creative liberties," says Jen. "The menu will be the same, but for decorating and personality, they want the franchisee to be very active. And that's why we liked it, too. We wanted something we could work, not just be up here running a bunch of stores, we want to be in it."
"Charleston doesn't really have a name for it," says Mike, referring to the open-arms hospitality of aloha, a word that encompasses both a simple greeting as well as a deeper cultural significance. "It's a kind of service that's 'no worries, we can take care of this,'" says Jen. "It's not in your face."
This October, we wrote about another Mexican-leaning joint, Pink Cactus, set to open by the end of the year on Spring Street. We mentioned Maui, along with Semilla, Papi's Taqueria, Azul Mexicano, El Pincho, Rebel Taqueria — the tortillas roll on. But Maui Tacos, the Seltzers claim, is something else entirely.
There are also tiki influences on their cocktail menu, with daiquiris, mai tais, and a pina colada. For teetotalers, the Seltzers say they'll have fresh made strawberry and lime juice and horchata — "we'll encourage people to choose that over the soda," says Mike.
If any of these offerings remind you of a Chipotle or Moe's, Mike assures us that Maui Tacos is not the heat lamp hurry-through spot you frequented in your college days. "We have fish, shrimp, all of our proteins are made to order — it's put on the grill when you order it, but will still be out in five minutes, we've got a system down." Plus, Moe's and Chipotle don't have their own Alfonso.
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Hoping to cater to tourists on foot (they're a stone's throw from several hotels), as well as local businesses and college kids, Maui Tacos may not be on the top of your list of foodie destinations when you first visit the city. But after a while, when you're in a hurry, a grilled fish surf burrito and Mai Tai may sound like just the ticket, all the warmth of aloha welcoming you in, no heat lamps included.