Wahaka Taco Launches Tuesday as Canzonetta Plans for Franchises

HOWLAND TOWNSHIP, Ohio – Mark Canzonetta has already warned township officials there could be traffic tie-ups near his new restaurant Tuesday.

That’s when Wahaka Taco will have its soft opening, in advance of the Mexican restaurant’s official ribbon-cutting Friday morning. “Unless there’s a blizzard, I think we’re going to stop traffic,” he predicted.

The restaurant is on state Route 46 just north of the East Market Street intersection, in the building previously occupied by Sunrise Inn Express. It is the first unit in what Canzonetta, who also owns and operates Bistro 1907 in DoubleTree by Hilton Youngstown Downtown, envisions as a chain of restaurants.

Aqua Pazzo, where he worked before opening Bistro 1907 in 2018, made him famous in the Mahoning Valley, and his appearances on “Valley Spotlight” solidified that, he said.

With “the help of a brilliant team, Wahaka Taco is going to be my calling card,” he remarked. He originally planned to open the new concept in downtown Youngstown’s Gallagher Building, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans.

The concept for the takeout restaurant – scaled back from the 200-seat restaurant with a patio that he had planned – draws upon Canzonetta’s affection for Mexico, which he has visited two or three times every year for nearly 40 years, he said.

“I love the people. I love the culture. I’m out of my mind in love with the food,” which is “bright, fresh, crisp, exciting” and has elements of the different cultures that settled in the Oaxaca region, he said. “There’s some Arabic elements that are part of Mexican food,” he said. “There’s some Middle Eastern elements in it.”

The name “Wahaka” is a phonetic spelling of the Oaxaca region of Mexico. “I like names that roll off the tongue really quickly – Aqua, Bistro,” he said. It will feature what he characterized as more authentic Mexican food than the “dumbed-down” version offered by other restaurants.

All the food will be fresh and handcrafted, with few exceptions. Meats will be marinated in the spice and coloring agent achiote. Other ingredients will include piloncillo, a raw form of pure cane sugar.

“We’re not serving anything here that’s not Mexican,” he said. “Even the juice boxes for the kids come from Mexico.” The menu also will feature vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options.

Renovating the building itself and fixing “all the warts” cost in excess of $450,000 – and counting. “But this is a great building. It’s an old bank. It’s not going to blow over in a tornado. It’s going to be here forever, and it had a drive-thru already,” he remarked.

The township has been “great,” although he acknowledged challenges such as having to navigate signage sizes and having to create a crash impact plan for the small patio that required bollards to be installed. He expects students from nearby Howland High School to hang out on the patio after dismissal and order food and slushies.

“We want this place to be about community and family. We want to be a proud member of this community, just like we are in downtown Youngstown,” he said.

The plan is to open three Wahaka Tacos by mid-2024, with the third to be developed as a prototype unit for franchising. He already is looking in Canfield for the second location and eyeing Poland for the third.

“This has been built from Day One to be a franchise,” he remarked.

In preparation for that, Canzonetta hired Mike Gallo as operations manager. Most recently with Primanti Bros., he opened the Boardman and Niles restaurants and “fixed” issues with its Grove City, Pa., location. His background also includes stints with the O’Charley’s restaurants operated by Covelli Enterprises and Lone Star Steakhouse.

His job will be to open every Wahaka location, going on site three to four months before opening and working with every general manager to get the restaurant up and running. Canzonetta said he hopes to develop a traveling training team to train the franchisees to open their own restaurants.

“I’ve known Mark for years,” Gallo said. “And you don’t get the opportunity to start a franchise from the ground up very often.”

Market research firm IBISWorld reports the number of Mexican restaurants in the United States has grown by 2.5% annually over the past five years, to 49,584 restaurants.

The management team for the restaurant, which has about 32 employees, includes one manager with a background in fine dining and another from Dunkin Donuts who has experience not only working with younger employees but also the computer systems and a drive-thru, which will be important to the restaurant’s operation, Canzonetta said.

Training is going well and, contrary to the hiring challenges many employers are facing, Gallo reported he had “zero” no-shows at a recent orientation session.

Wahaka, like Canzonetta’s Bistro 1907, offers employees health insurance, a 401(k) plan and paid vacation. The restaurant will be closed on Sundays and major holidays, although Canzonetta left open the option of adding Sundays if the business model dictates it.

“I’m trying to create an environment that I was never afforded,” he said.

Other plans include securing a liquor permit so by spring customers can order a half-gallon of premade margaritas or a slushie with “test tube splash of either rum or vodka or tequila” if they want, he said.

In addition, the restaurateur is in the process of securing a trademark for “Eat More Tacos,” which he was surprised no one had done previously.

“It’s in the final stages. We have all the approvals. We just don’t have the document,” he said.

Pictured at top: Wahaka Taco operations manager Mike Gallo, left, and owner Mark Canzonetta.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.