Ouachita graduates, Austin and Ashton Samuelson, are founders of Tacos 4 Life, a restaurant chain started in 2014. Tacos 4 Life was recognized as the 2018 Arkansas Business of the Year.
Tacos 4 Life mission: ‘feed the world’
Sarah Davis and
Arkansas Baptist News
CONWAY – What does eating a taco have to do with tackling world hunger? “Everything!” according to Ashton and Austin Samuelson, who founded Tacos 4 Life in 2014.
For every taco, quesadilla, salad or rice bowl sold, Tacos 4 Life makes a donation of 22 cents, the cost of a meal for a malnourished child, to Feed My Starving Children (FMSC), which then sends the meals to children in Swaziland, Africa, and Honduras.
“Tacos 4 Life was born out of a vision that people can eat great food, while also helping change lives around the world,” said Austin.
Tacos 4 Life was named the 2018 Arkansas Business of the Year in late February.
The two believe that starvation is nothing more than a distribution problem. “As long as there is a problem like that with children dying simply because they’re not getting food – and there’s enough food in this world – then we have a strong sense of urgency,” Austin told arkansasbusiness.com.
“We believe that God is up to something big, and we want Tacos 4 Life to be a part of it,” he said.
The couple first met as 15-year-olds when they attended Super Summer at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU). Although they lived about 100 miles apart, the two continued their relationship throughout high school, were reunited as students at OBU and were married soon after graduation in 2008.
As newlyweds working their first jobs in California, the couple learned about world hunger; the fact that thousands of children die of starvation daily burdened them.
With the belief that “hunger is the world’s most solvable problem,” they wrestled with how to address the urgent need of starvation in the world.
“We didn’t know what to do with it for well over a year and finally one day God just gave us this idea,” Austin said in an online article at amppob.com.
He explained that they were inspired by the model and mission of Tom’s Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to people in need for every pair of shoes sold, and set out to do something similar with food.
Their idea of a mission-based business began to take shape.
“We weren’t sure when we started how it would turn out. We knew God had placed this dream on our hearts and that He would do with it what He would, but we were optimistic that it could work,” said Austin.
Still, there were a few bumps along the way as the idea began to take shape. Living in Austin’s parents’ basement after the couple moved back to Arkansas and Austin lost his commercial real estate job, the couple had a vision for the restaurant and a lease they had signed “in faith,” said Austin, in an online article at thegospelcoalition.org. Yet, they had very little money and were turned down by six banks for a loan.
After the sixth bank rejection, the young couple and his parents “took the weekend to pray separately. When we came together on Sunday, we all sensed God telling us to keep moving forward, that He would provide. And little by little, the money came,” he told thegospelcoalition.org.
Their first restaurant opened in June 2014 in Conway.
“We had to fight to make it a reality. It was hard, not rosy. And God taught us to fall in love with the grind, with the journey, and – most of all – with Himself,” Austin said.
“The challenges that my wife and I faced on our journey are some of our sweetest memories, because they were times when the Lord showed up.”
Even when finances have been tight, the Samuelsons never considered not making their donation to FMSC. “It’s non-negotiable, and we trust God to provide what we need,” said Austin to thegospelcoaltion.org.
Today eight Tacos 4 Life restaurants are scattered throughout Arkansas, and one Tacos 4 Life restaurant is located in Frisco, Texas. Five additional restaurants are slated to open soon, including locations in North Carolina and Tennessee. The Samuelson’s goal is to operate 20 restaurants by 2020, providing meals to a million children per day and ultimately ending childhood starvation.
Since 2014, Tacos 4 Life has raised more than three million meals for children around the world, and with every new store that is opened, 1,000 more children will be fed daily.
Recently the Samuelsons have expanded their focus to hunger needs in Arkansas. The Samuelsons – parents of two boys, ages 1 and 3 – have kicked off a season of giving in their central and northwest Arkansas locations, including a food drive and contributions to the Arkansas Food Bank and the northwest Arkansas Food Bank for each kids’ meal purchased, according to amppob.com.
“So we’re going to make a donation to Feed My Starving Children and then we’re also going to make a donation to the Arkansas Food Bank,” he said.
“It’s the first time we’ve been able to partner with them. We’re really pumped about that,” said Austin in the amppob.com article.
On March 2-4, the couple also hosted a large meal-packing event in northwest Arkansas at the Jones Center, according to the tacos4life.com website. There, volunteers assembled more than 155,000 meals for malnourished children. Each meal consisted of rice, chicken, soy and veggies scientifically engineered to help starving children.
The company today employs about 350 people, and annual sales have grown from between $500,000 and $1 million its first year to between $5 million and $10 million in 2017, according to arkansasbusiness.com.
Even with a focus on feeding malnourished children, the Samuelsons are passionate that their dining guests enjoy their chef-inspired meals.
“Our mission is to create unique, made-from-scratch tacos that get people excited about changing the world. We want to give our guests an amazing dining experience – and they in turn are helping end childhood hunger every time they order a meal,” said Ashton in an online article at amppob.com.
“It’s definitely humbling, and we’re honored that God is using our company in this way,” said Austin.
“Words aren’t adequate enough for how thankful we are to God and the community. God has provided every step of the way in this process. The communities we are in have made this happen every day,” said Austin. “We wouldn’t do this if it was just about us, but we wake up every day with a purpose, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Sarah Davis served as an intern with Arkansas Baptist News during the summer of 2017. Contact Margaret Colson at email@example.com.