How expensive are expensive tacos anyway? 

Taco Trends

The proliferation of taco joints has caused us to examine the price intervals between more than 20 eateries serving the classic Mexican staple. Rather than serving as a quick guide for the cost conscious, this Taco Slider offers some compelling insights into the state of the taco. But first, a note about our methodology.

We recorded the lowest and highest taco price and then calculated the median between them. Using the median between two price points, rather than the average of all available taco prices, allows us to control for the number of tacos on a menu and faithfully compare a restaurant with two offerings (like Chico Feo) against one that has over 15 (Taco Boy.)

One complication we encountered was with restaurants that did not offer tacos a la carte but rather as platter of two or three, often with a small side. The quandary was whether or not to price out the side by removing its cost from the platter and then divide the remaining cost by the number of tacos on the platter. We had a couple of issues with this remove-the-side-and-then-divide methodology. First, by not offering tacos a la carte, these eateries were demanding that their patrons take on a sunk cost of at least $8 for a taco, despite that patron's desire for a second or third taco, or a side. Second, as our analysis is not concerned with side dishes but rather tacos, we felt that skewing the data to correct for an overwrought menu tactic was unfair to the overall inquiry. In the end, we divided the total cost of the platter by the number of tacos on the platter.

The results were a mixed bag of expected findings and a few surprises. Somewhat expected was the cluster of mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants at the low cost end of the Taco Slider. A somewhat surprising finding was the number of downtown taco eateries on the low cost end, suggesting that the high demand for affordable tacos among the peninsula's college and young professional crowd, coupled with relatively high supply, had the gross effect of keeping prices low. We also noted that restaurants that did not serve tacos a la carte occupied a cluster toward the high cost end of the Taco Slider. For those who may bemoan this congregation, we would point out that the mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants did not receive any sort of statistical boost for free baskets of chips and salsa given to patrons simply for sitting down in their establishments. Also, La Hacienda, which serves tacos by the platter only, achieved a spot on the low cost end of the Taco Slider by selling three tacos to a plate, rather than the more commonplace two.

An interesting trend was that in many instances, age of an establishment was inverse to median cost of a taco, suggesting that the best deals were to be found at restaurants that had been open for a longer time. One exception to this finding is the newly opened Raul's Maya Del Soul, opened late in 2013, but still occupying a place on the low cost end of the Taco Slider. This finding does not, however, give us any insight into how much more life is left for the highly stylized taqueria trend.

While we realize that there are shortcomings in any study of this type, there are some prescriptions that we would lay out for further taco studies. We believe that future studies should track taco circumference and report value as cost divided by taco area. Based on our findings of competitive taco prices in downtown Charleston, future studies should also analyze a restaurant's physical distance to the next closest eatery in the sample to see if patrons pay a premium in areas lacking robust competition, deemed "taco deserts."

Plenty of national trend forecasters have cited high-end Mexican as a trend to watch for 2014. But with no high-profile taqueria openings slated for Charleston, it may be possible that the trend has reached saturation.

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