Taco Wednesday and selfies help alum bring old-school restaurant into the Instagram age

Omar Lopez changed his family’s decades-old Mexican nightclub using entrepreneurial skills learned at USC Marshall

July 26, 2017 Julie Riggott

How does an authentic Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles compete on Taco Tuesday? If it’s Candela Taco Bar and Lounge, it doesn’t. Instead, Taco Wednesday brings in crowds that wait more than half an hour for a seat.

Omar Lopez ’13 and his sister have bright ideas for their family-run taco bar and event venue. Lopez oversees business development, programming and marketing. And he credits the USC Marshall School of Business for helping him develop those ideas as an undergraduate who minored in entrepreneurship — he majored in real estate development at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Lopez, however, had to apply his business acumen in a real-world situation before he ever graduated.

A new flavor

The family’s Mexican nightclub, which was run by his father for 40 years, was in need of a fresh approach.

At the height of the recession in 2009, Lopez and his siblings took on a project that would be challenging even in the best of business cycles: updating and rebranding the club as a contemporary taco bar and event venue that would appeal to a younger generation, as well as to both the Latino and more general customer base in Los Angeles.

Times were changing, the Miracle Mile was changing and the Lopez family needed to keep up.

We wanted to hold the values of our family and bring a new modern, first-generation Mexican-American flavor to the venue.

Omar Lopez

“We wanted to hold the values of our family and bring a new modern, first-generation Mexican-American flavor to the venue,” said Lopez, who was raised in Los Angeles by parents who were born in Mexico.

As a student, Lopez put his classroom lessons into practice — and had to pivot quickly if they didn’t work out. Each day after classes he drove to the family business, open seven days a week, to host events or prepare caterings.

“Oh, there were definitely challenges,” Lopez said with a laugh. “We were trying to do something completely new after 40 years in business, and I was still in school. In business, you have to be willing to take risks. You’ve got to get comfortable with getting uncomfortable. I learned how to do that at Marshall.”

Lopez and his siblings worked together to bring the family business into the 21st century, and Candela was born. The cavernous, 16,000-square-foot space in the heavily trafficked La Brea-Wilshire area is now home to a restaurant, an event room with a vaulted Art Deco ceiling and a smaller lounge upstairs. The bars are stocked with premium tequilas and equipped with Bose audio systems.

In addition to booking concerts, weddings, banquets and corporate functions, Lopez develops marketing ideas to turn a visit to Candela La Brea into an experience, especially for millennials.

How about a taco with that photo?

The space is optimized for the Instagram generation. While waiting outside on Taco Wednesday, millennials pose in front of a green wall with a letterboard that offers changing words of fun, wisdom or inspiration. Inside, the customers snap photos at custom neon wall signs, like the one in a comfy lounge area that says Mi amor.

Lopez keeps going back to the entrepreneurial skills he honed at USC when talking about his current successes and future plans.

“Selling is something that is not easy to teach,” Lopez said. “But USC Marshall taught that really well. Our class projects, which involved presentations selling an idea in front of 100-plus peers, tested our limits and pushed us to see how far we could go in business.”

Lopez said the No. 1 lesson he learned at the business school was the power of relationships and networking.

“USC is phenomenal; the teachers and the students are motivated and positive,” he said. “Everyone is always trying to strive to do something better. Your peers and teachers push you to go that extra mile.”