CEA Retail & Hospitality Winner: Expanding A Taco Brand

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted May 3, 2024
RETAIL & HOSPITALITY | Shaka Taco | Cody Leutgens & Steve Christian, Co-Owners | Year Founded: 2017 | Employees: 100 (Photo By Madeline Gray)
When two Surf City dudes, Cody Leutgens and Steve Christian, realized the community they loved had a shortage of good, casual restaurants, they decided to address the situation. 

They came up with Shaka Taco, a small taco joint selling fresh, locally sourced seafood. From that lowly beginning, Shaka Taco has expanded to three locations, each with a dedicated and growing following. 

“We recognized that there was a strong need for more options, more fresh food options and dining of a casual nature in the area,” Leutgens said. “We wanted to bring in something that was local, something that we took pride in and that other people can take pride in as well.”

The first Shaka Taco was a bare-bones affair, at which the food was served out of a walk-up window. What the restaurant lacked in aesthetics, it made up for with well-prepared dishes, many of which featured fresh seafood caught by local fishermen. 

“We grew up here and have relationships with the guys in the fish market,” Christian said. “It just made sense to use a lot of the local fair when it came to fresh fish tacos.”

The combination of great food and informality had broad appeal, with folks of all types flocking to the restaurant.

When Leutgens and Christian realized Shako Taco’s popularity in Surf City, they decided to open a second restaurant in five years. 

They opened two restaurants in 2022, one at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the second at Ironclad Golf and Beer Garden in Hampstead.

The Hampstead restaurant took the Shako Taco brand to the next level. The 180-acre campus included a large, abandoned building – capable of providing in-door seating – that Leutgens and Christian renovated to reflect the Shaka Taco image. Leutgens and Christian, who bought into Ironclad Golf with Ted Coughlin, also turned the grounds into a venue with games for children and adults, music and other entertainment.  

“Come to the Hampstead location on a Friday, and it is jammed,” Leutgens said. “It has the same [vibe] as the Surf City Shako Taco, but it’s on an exponentially larger scale.”

The two restauranteurs are still expanding and improving the Hampstead Shaka Taco operation. In addition to adding breakfast to their lunch and dinner services, they lease space to a coffee shop. 

More entertainment options are also on the menu. 

Leutgens and Christian currently lease pickleball courts to the community. They are also renovating the driving range, which will include a lounge, and updating the golf course.

Throughout Shako Taco’s growth, Leutgens and Christian have aimed to remain committed to two goals: serving high-quality local food and providing a place in the community where everyone feels welcome and appreciated.   

“We have created second homes for the people in our community,” Leutgens said, “where they can get great food, entertainment, and camaraderie.”

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