For anyone who expected or hoped the guys serving lion meat tacos would just go away, they haven't.
In fact, the Taco Fusion restaurant owners have their foot on the gas with expansion. They've relocated and opened this week in a new spot in Ybor City, and they're negotiating with property owners to open up a large commercial kitchen space to handle an expanding catering business.
And rather than shy away from ultra-exotic meats, they plan to highlight more on the menu. “People eat these kinds of exotic meats all over the world,” said Brad Barnett, who is the top manager for the company. “If Food Network can show Andrew Zimmern eating all kinds of weird things, why can't we serve it?” To whit, they plan a slew of holiday-themed taco events: Reindeer meat tacos for Christmas, rabbit meat tacos for Easter, and so on.
Not all this expansion comes from selling tacos made from lion meat, though at $39 apiece and several thousand sold this summer, that's been a big boost to their bottom line. Once their year-long lease was up on Gandy this spring, they moved to a new outdoor patio-style restaurant space at 1604 N. 17th Street in Ybor City and last week they had a soft opening.
The other major revenue stream comes from the sister restaurant, the James Joyce Irish Pub. Ryan Gougeon acquired that business several years ago and moved operations to a spot a few blocks away from Taco Fusion, and the spot has large crowds for their weekly lobster night.
Gougeon and managers like Barnett haven't made a big deal publicly of how they operate both Taco Fusion and the James Joyce, partly to avoid muddying the waters amid the controversy over Taco Fusion selling lion meat tacos. That dustup hit a peak last April after The Tampa Tribune reported on them serving lion tacos, and news crews virtually surrounded the restaurant. Barnett ended up on TV and radio shows around the country.
Most of their notoriety comes from the lion tacos, he said, and they don't shy from the publicity or controversy. Their catering schedule now calls for several dozen parties through the holiday season, and Barnett is trying to get Taco Fusion into stadiums around town. “I'd love to sell lion tacos at a Bucs' game,” Barnett said. (They have sold T-shirts that read “Real Men Eat Lion.”) “But a lot of people don't know the hard work we put into the food. We grind our own cumin spice. We hand-roast all our Poblano peppers for salsa.”
Meanwhile, their catering business that's produced out of the James Joyce kitchen has outgrown the space, Barnett said, and they've signed a letter of intent to move into a 2,000-square-foot commercial kitchen space in Ybor.
More national attention could come their way. This week, the same company that produces TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Swamp Pawn plans to follow around owners of the Taco Fusion and James Joyce to film a pilot reality TV show to pitch to networks.