Mike Shaw is co-owner of Loco Tacqueria & Oyster Bar, a Baja-style Mexican restaurant in South Boston that challenges the perception of what Mexican is. Like that oysters aren’t Mexican—or are they?! Shaw, who has roots in MA, spent a lot of time in the Southwest and Mexico and schooled us. Coastal areas in Mexico like Rocky Point (also known as Puerto Penasco) have super fresh, delicious seafood. So pairing oysters with Mexican, while innovative for Boston, is not so loco.
Shaw has a passion for food, people, and life. His relationship with the restaurant business started at age 20 in West Hollywood at Barney’s Beanery, where celebs like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Charles Bukowski hung out in the ‘60’s, and Quentin Tarantino allegedly wrote Pulp Fiction. Shaw says that experience made him realize you could have fun at work, and once he realized that, other jobs crushed his soul. After managing Lincoln in South Boston for 2 years, opening his own restaurant was the natural next step.
He feels extremely lucky that he found something that doesn’t feel like work, and he considers the Loco team part of his family. We recently had a chance to catch up with Shaw, share some authentic Arette Gran Clase Extra Anejo tequila and talk about what it’s like to run a successful business.
You said: “Not everyone makes the team in real life,” that hard work separates people from the pack. How has that hustle mindset got you to where you are today?
I think it is pretty simple math. If you work hard, put in the time, and listen, you probably have a shot at getting to where you want to go.
You mentioned that it’s super empowering to own your own business. That you have a “fail hard, fail fast” approach to trying new things. What kind of boundaries have you pushed?
It’s really great waking up and being able to come here with an open mind. We made so many mistakes over the first couple of years. But that ability to screw up gives us the freedom to continue to try and try and try, to keep getting better at what we do. Our management team is awesome and honest. If one of us says something that is just absurd, someone will undoubtedly jump in and say: “That’s gotta be one of the dumbest things I have ever heard.” That openness to get ideas on the table and discuss them has opened a ton of doors for not only Loco, but the people on our team.
The management team you brought in to Loco are all friends who were hired into positions that were above their previous positions, yourself included. Did you purposefully set yourselves up for that challenge?
Yes. When my partners offered me the GM job at Lincoln four years ago I was put in a position to challenge myself. And I was surrounded by amazing and supportive bosses and staff that allowed for growth. I think that when we hired the leadership team here, that same mentality carried over. Just like in sports, it was an opportunity, across the board, for people to prove to themselves and our team that they could rise to the challenge. It gives you that chip on your shoulder to get to work early and stay late. To say I am glad we went that route would be an understatement. What our team has been able to achieve here is so inspiring. Watching them day in and day out work as cohesive unit with the restaurants best interest always at the forefront, keeps me excited to get my ass in here early every day.
Your philosophy is that people come first, and you hire people with swagger and let them manage themselves. What are the benefits of that kind of empowerment?
Too many to talk about! There is a misconception that we are in the restaurant, hospitality, or food industry…or whatever word people want to define it as. Our approach is that we are in the people business. We try to hire the coolest people who fit our team, then let them do their thing. This is a neighborhood restaurant, where we see the same people 3 or 4 days a week. Making sure that they are drawn to the personalities as much as the food and drink, is essential to making sure they have a good time. We want to connect with our staff, and in turn we want them to connect to our guests. Allowing them to be themselves is the only way to do that successfully.
The Loco team has a lot of balance and different creative influences/endeavors outside of work (furniture making, musicians, artists, Muay Thai, etc.). What do you do to keep balance in your life outside of Loco?
Yeah, our people kick ass. Teachers, furniture makers, yoga instructors, business owners, real estate agents, you name it, we probably have it! Work/life balance is fundamental to our success. Allowing Loco to be a vehicle for many of our people to get where they want to go is awesome. We have three people here that bought their own homes last year, three that started their own business, etc. That is the stuff that turns us on as operators. I am trying to learn from them about making sure that there is strong balance in work and life. If I am not at the restaurant, you’d probably find me golfing (terribly), riding my motorcycle, or hanging down at Peter Welch’s. And nothing beats a walk or run around Castle Island. The fact that Castle Island is right in our back yard is insane! You have to take advantage of that.
Let’s talk about community. You are from the Boston area and have strong ties in Southie. Commissioning Augustine Kofie to paint the mural outside Loco is kind of a big deal. What inspired you to do that?
A bunch of beers. Kofie and I have a mutual friend, Todd Mazer, who knew we were throwing around the idea of doing some sort of art at Loco. We had no idea where…just that we wanted to do something. Kofie was in Boston about 8/9 months ago and we spent an awesome few hours just shooting the shit and getting to know one another. By the end of the night, we were on F St. starring at this big blank canvas. We shook hands and basically said: “Alright, let’s make this happen”. It was so cool going through the process with him. This dude is the real deal, and I had no clue how well respected and busy he was. To meet a living artist who is able to make a livelihood from art is just awesome. He was so humble and tenacious, working 4 straight days in 100 degree heat. I think the best part of the project was seeing how he would stop for EVERY person who came by. Whether it was for him to sign his book, talk to local artists, or rap with neighbors who were walking by, he made time for each and every one of them. He even invited two of them to dinner on his last night here at Loco. Just a class act all around. I am so happy that he did the project, and am excited that there is another public art installation here in South Boston.