published Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Experience helps couple grow area restaurants

Mike and Taylor Monen pose together for a photo at Urban Stack in Chattanooga. The Monens talked about their business history and future plans at Urban Stack, one of their Chattanooga restaurants. The pair also own and operate Taco Mamasita.
Mike and Taylor Monen pose together for a photo at Urban Stack in Chattanooga. The Monens talked about their business history and future plans at Urban Stack, one of their Chattanooga restaurants. The pair also own and operate Taco Mamasita.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

MIKE & TAYLOR MONEN

Company: Taco Mamacita and Urban Stack restaurants

Title: Owners

Education: Taylor studied business marketing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Mike studied corporate communications at the College of Charleston.

First restaurant jobs: Both started at Sticky Fingers, Mike as a dish washer and Taylor as a server

Family: Two children, Simon, 3, and Lily, 6

Taco Mamacita opened its doors right as the economy plunged into recession, causing the owners to worry that they were crazy.

“We were frightened,” said Mike Monen, who owns the restaurant with his wife. “I remember looking at Taylor and saying, ‘Why did we do this?’”

Nearly four years later, the Monens have grown to open two other Taco Mamacitas and the Chattanooga gourmet burger spot Urban Stack, and have plans to open a new concept in the area by next year.

“It took a full year to become what was considered a popular eating spot in the city,” Mike Monen said. “It was a full year to get that confidence.”

But that confidence was well deserved. By the end of its second year, Taco Mamacita’s sales had grown 46 percent. The next year they rose by nearly a third, and are on track for similar gains in 2012. The Monens’ other restaurants are generating similar sales numbers.

Of course, success didn’t happen overnight. Both Monens got their start in the restaurant industry working at Sticky Fingers barbecue restaurants. Mike entered the business as a dishwasher at the chain’s original location while studying communications at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He soon became fascinated with the way the owners ran the business.

“I watched them create a culture that was fun,” he said. “I started to care about the job more than school.”

Mike Monen worked his way up in the restaurant and, after graduating in 1997, became a full partner. He moved back to Chattanooga to open the Scenic City’s first Sticky Fingers where he met Taylor, who worked the front end of the restaurant.

Both Monens helped Sticky Fingers to success, and it was soon sold to a restaurant group.

After some time away from the industry, both Mike and Taylor started to miss the restaurant life and soon started planning their first venture.

“We watched a company grow and we were part of a company growing,” Taylor Monen said. “I’m a dreamer, and Mike’s a realist, and we meet in the middle.”

Those qualities helped when starting up their own concept, but Taylor Monen said their most valuable asset now is their employees. Between the four restaurants, the Monens employ as many as 250 people and fill all their upper-level positions from within the organization.

The key to their expansion has been people. Before opening a new restaurant, the Monens make sure they have staff members in place with the talent to run their new restaurant.

“This isn’t just a summer job,” Mike Monen said. “It can be a career.”

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