Food News

More than Tacos: Pilo's Aims to Employ People with Special Abilities

Pilo's Street Tacos owner Derek Gonzalez with his aunt, Pilo, who inspired his mission to empower and employ people with "special abilities," including Down syndrome.
Pilo's Street Tacos owner Derek Gonzalez with his aunt, Pilo, who inspired his mission to empower and employ people with "special abilities," including Down syndrome. Photo courtesy of Carma Connected
Pilo’s Street Tacos founder Derek Gonzalez is a man on a mission. 

The Miami-based restaurateur says he aims to be the largest employer of people who live with intellectual or developmental disabilities — “special abilities,” as they say at Pilo’s — in the United States.

Pilo’s website states a goal of hiring 5,000 such employees in the next three to six years. People who have developmental disabilities make up the largest minority in the U.S., according to Pilo’s mission statement, and have been found to log the lowest rates of employment.

"That’s where I have lightning in a bottle. That’s our secret sauce,” Gonzalez says. “Our people, our culture. I think that separates us from any other taco shop, not just in Miami but in the whole country.”

Gonzalez is already at the forefront of empowering developmentally disabled people in Miami, having opened Pilo’s Street Tacos in Brickell in 2017 and then a second location, Pilo’s Tequila Garden, in Wynwood this past February. Combined, the two restaurants employ a half-dozen employees with developmental disabilities, and Gonzalez partners with organizations including Gigi’s Playhouse, Best Buddies, and Our Pride Academy to help other Miami residents like them “achieve their dreams, increase their independence and provide companionship.”

At Pilo’s Tequila Garden, for instance, proceeds from a gallery of local and international artists benefit Gigi’s Playhouse.

Combining authentic tacos with a mission of inclusivity stems from Gonzalez's childhood in Mexico City, and specifically his Aunt Pilo, who had Down syndrome.

"She was there for my birth, she was there for my baptism,” Gonzalez says, characterizing Pilo as “a huge part of our family. It was incredible — her capabilities and just her aura to be around.”

When developing his restaurant, Gonzalez realized he wanted to do more to give back to people like his aunt, who also happened to be a food enthusiast.

“She had a tooth for fine food," Gonzalez says. "She loved to be in the kitchen and around the table. Her nickname was 'La Gorda,' which in Spanish means little fatty. It’s something we shared. We always ate and we always had good laughs.”

Since then, Gonzalez has worked to employ people with disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, hearing impairment, and cerebral palsy.

Jorge Guerrero, 26, who has Down syndrome, has worked at Pilo’s Street Tacos for three years. Pilo’s is his first job. He does everything from cleaning tables to running food to packing orders for Uber Eats.

“I like to work at Pilo’s because I feel like they’re my family,” Guerrero tells New Times. “I learned how to treat people and feel confident in myself. It makes me feel independent and capable.”

Guerrero adds that he loves the food, and that his favorite taco at Pilo’s is the carnitas taco.

“The words that come out of his mouth and others are the driving force behind the mission,” Gonzalez says.

According to Gonzalez, the key to Pilo’s success, especially in the midst of a pandemic, is merging quality and authenticity with social impact. “People want to know that you’re not fake."

Gonzalez ensures the quality of the ingredients at an affordable price point by drawing from a wide range of resources, including touring different regions of Mexico and the U.S. with his executive chef before developing their own recipes and perfecting cooking techniques.

Though Pilo’s maintains a hip atmosphere in its tequila garden, it doesn't lose sight of its other mission. Gonzalez says companies often don’t hire people with disabilities for what they perceive as liability reasons, or because they think it might make guests uncomfortable. Pilo’s, on the other hand, wants to provide those people with jobs that involve being a part of the restaurant's culture and social events with the aim of normalizing their presence.

“That’s where we’re different,” Gonzalez says. “It’s about what’s on the inside. That’s what we measure people by.”

Going forward, the restaurateur plans to expand — not only in South Florida but nationally — possibly even to other countries.

But for now, if you’re hankering for tacos and tequila in Wynwood Brickell, the Tequila Garden opens daily at 5 p.m. And if you're looking for a bite in Brickell, Pilo’s Street Tacos opens daily at noon — stop by for a few carnitas tacos, and say hi to Jorge.

Pilo’s Street Tacos. 28 SW 11th St, Miami; 305-800-8226; Open Sunday and Monday from noon to 10 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from noon to midnight.

Pilo's Tequila Garden Wynwood. 158 NW 24th St,, Miami; 305-800-8226; Open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight.
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