In this inventor interview Nicolas Stanco inventor of the TacoRack came up with the idea for his product because he was annoyed that whenever he tried to cook tacos they would break or close up on cooking so that they were difficult to fill. He decided to create something to overcome the problem.
Tara: Please could you tell me a little bit about where you are based, your background and if The Taco Rack is your first invention?
Nicolas: The Taco Rack is the first invention I actually followed though on, there have been other items I have thought of over the years to make peoples lives easier, but never had the inclination of becoming an inventor. I spent my early life raising a family, paying bills and solving problems in my field of work. When you are a contractor in construction, there are nothing but problems to solve, so my abilities to see the end result and to find a better path to it, has always been a strong point in my life.
Tara: Please could you explain what the Taco Rack is and how you came up with the idea?
Nicolas: With a young family back in the late 1990’s my growing children loved when I had tacos on the menu. For years when I was single, I followed the cooking instructions on the Taco Shell boxes, but always found problems with the outcome. Shells would break with excessive handling, the shells would close if laid on their side during the heating process and leave you with a brittle, narrow taco shell to try to fill and to eat. The first change from their printed instructions that I made, was to stand the shells up in a baking pan, leaning them against each other, to eliminate the laying down part… This prevented the closing up of the shell opening, allowed for easier filling of the meats and reduced the shell breakage.
Now part of the printed cooking instructions as per all taco shell makers, still to this day, you are only supposed to bake the shells and serve all ingredients to the table so the family, including the kids, could build their tacos one at a time. That sounds great in theory, but if you ever let a kid scoop out meat from the pan, fill their own tacos and have them garnish it with shredded cheese and toppings, you will have such a mess to clean up afterwards. My process of leaning them against each other, baking them upright in the pan, filling them with cooked meat, topping them with shredded cheese eliminated most of the stress and mess you suffered in reality having the kids do so.
My cooking process allowed for one extra step which the taco shell makers did not think of, it allowed me to return the completed pan of filled tacos to the hot oven, to melt the cheese over the meats. This step while not printed on any taco shell box, provides a much better outcome all around. First you as the cook, control the whole cooking process from start to finish, drastically reducing the problems related to the accepted method. When you follow their printed instructions, by the time your family fills their second taco, the ingredients are cooling down and at best you are eating warm tacos. Each successive taco becomes colder and colder. As for the extra step of melting the cheese over the meat, this step provides you with a few unseen benefits! First returning the tray of 12 cooked shell, filled with meat and topped with cheese tacos to the oven assures you of all of them to be hot and crisp when they are taken to the table. The melted cheese acts as a binder to hold the meat into the shell while actually reducing breakage when bitten, because the ingredients are locked into the sides of the shell by the cheese, leaving only your cold garnishments are on top. Once people have tried my Taco Cookware and the outcome of the Cooking System we have, they never will go back to the printed method provided by the shell makers.
Tara: What were the first steps you took after having the idea?
Nicolas: In my case, I knew there was a problem with the accepted cooking method of tacos. I had already solved most of them before the actual invention process began. While there were still problems to solve once the tacos arrived to the table, that idea came later on. It just so happened that in my life at this time I was hired to wire a commercial laser for one of my customers in NYC. When it was wired and we turned it on, upon seeing how it sliced through sheet metal, that to me was when the idea that I needed to work on a prototype happened. Please understand my idea was not to invent a new line of taco cookware for the masses… I was at first just looking to make my families Taco Night easier and better. So that night I took home a piece of scrap sheet metal and went into the garage to see what I could come up with. With a magic marker and a few taco shells, I went to work drawing the shape of the taco’s side view onto the metal and repeated it over and over until I reached the magic number of six! Then I took the marker and sketched out lines to join the notches I created with the tacos, added a bottom to the cooking rack and cut out the first leg of the piece with a band saw and a file. Once I had one side cut, I laid it over another piece of the metal and duplicated it again for the other rail. At this point I had a couple of taco rack rails, with no way to hold them together. I know I was onto something since the entire taco rack fit a standard cookie sheet. Now I just needed to come up with a way to put them together.
I had ideas of adding hinges and pins to make it stay together and open when needed for cooking, but that seemed to be much more work than needed. I then came up with the idea of interlocking the cross legs with the rails in slots, which reduced the assembly to a simple process. I then cut out two cross legs, added the assembly slots into them and the opposing slots into the long rails and put it together for the first time. It took about 4 hours to complete, but when it was done, I knew in my head and my heart that I have solved all the problems I was having when cooking tacos my way and improved the process and the outcome. I just needed to try it out in the kitchen to be sure. At this point I had only one prototype which held six tacos. So I decided to take the very first Taco Rack Challenge and cook half the box of 12 tacos in the Taco Rack and the other half the way suggested by the shell makers. Needless to say, The Taco Rack was a winner!
At this point I took the prototype back to my customer in NYC and had them scan it into their computer, which made all of it symmetrical, since mine was a crude hand cut prototype. Once it was set into the laser computer, my customer humored me and cut me 12 brand new stainless steel Taco Racks, which I took home and used ever since. I kept four and gave the other eight out as gifts to friends who also loved tacos. About a year or so later one of my friends said that I should patent it and try to sell it. I was an electrician not an inventor and I had no idea how to go about patenting an invention, but the idea was appealing.
Tara: Did you try and patent or protect your idea straight away or did you develop it first? How did you go about getting protection for your idea?
Nicolas: I developed it first only for my own home use, without intention to sell it to the public. Once people started to tell me that I should protect it and maybe sell them is when I started to look into how to go about getting a patent. I was talking to a co-worker one day who told me about an invention company who evaluated your product, and took you through the patent process. The company was based in NYC and with my newly laser cut prototypes in hand, I made an appointment with them and took a trip into NYC to see if the idea had legs, so to speak. The older gentlemen who met me allowed me to say my pitch, then when it was said I reached into my briefcase and took out the Taco Rack Prototype. Upon seeing it and hearing my story, he also allowed me to say how tacos were made currently and how Taco Cooking on the Taco Rack was far superior. He then rolled his chair to his file, and removed a contract for me to look at. As I read the terms, he said to me, “Son, if I were you I would not sell this idea and that I should proceed to manufacture if possible!” With a smile on my face, I signed a 2 year contract with them and I became officially known as a Inventor with a patent pending!
Tara: Did you look into licensing the Taco Rack or was your intention to always manufacture and sell it yourself?
Nicolas: Upon the advice of the invention developer in NYC, I decided to see if I could set up a deal with my customer to manufacture the product in their plant. I was new at this and had a lot to learn about the manufacturing business. As time passed I learned the hard way of what to do and what not to do! While I always wanted to keep control of the entire manufacturing process, I was still wondering if the idea had sales appeal to the public. I knew I loved it, but would people buy it? After all, all that they knew about tacos were what was printed on the taco shell box. In reality I would be trying to introduce an entirely new cooking method to the world. At that point I had no idea if anyone would see value purchasing it, how much it would cost to make or if there was any hope in making into a profitable venture.
Tara: Did you seek investment for the Taco Rack or did you fund development yourself?
Nicolas: I never sought investment, since I had created it from scratch, had help with the prototyping and usually solved the problems alone in life. When I signed the contract to submit for the patent, I did take a personal loan and paid it off over time. By the time the Patent was granted in Feb 2002, I had paid off the loan and was the proud owner of a United States Patent! I was out almost 10,000 dollars at this time, but it still felt good inside. What I did not know at this point was how much more money it would take to get the idea going!
Tara: How long has it taken from your initial idea to taking it to market?
Nicolas: In 2002 upon receiving the patent, I thought someone would be at my door holding one of those large cardboard checks with millions of dollars on it to purchase my invention rights. In reality I got plenty of attention from companies looking for me to give them money to promote the item. At the start of this, remember, I had only one model of Taco Rack produced in very limited quantity. I had 100 Taco Rack Sr.’s to my name, paid top dollar to have them cut on the laser and needed to see if selling them would pay for the money it cost to make. I drove around with them in my car, I had no packaging, no printed materials or anything other than the items and my words. I would talk to people at bars or at events and when the conversation got to my inventions, most people wanted to try it out. I charged them $20.00 for each one they wanted and hoped to get a positive response. One by one I was selling them to people I met, and the best thing is most came back to get one more, because most people made 12 tacos at a time… Since the Taco Rack Sr. only held six tacos, they wanted the second Taco Rack to complete their set. In a short time I sold out the 100 Taco Racks I had laser cut, and ordered 250 more. While I did not make much money doing this, it still felt good inside to create something from scratch and have people accept it. Laser cutting is expensive and time consuming so profit was small if manufacturing was to continue this way. In order to manufacture it less expensively I needed to invest in tooling, web sites, packaging and much more. This part of the story is where funding it with your own money became very costly!
Tara: What different ways have you promoted the Taco Rack and what methods have you found the most successful?
Nicolas: I sold my first home in 2005 and had built a new one in 2003. At this point I had equity to spend and I used my half of the money to start a company, purchase a domain name, build a web site, and introduce the Taco Rack to the world via the World Wide Web. Since I had scared money and no investors behind me I took steps slow, hoping not to mess up along the way. I designed my first site with a site building program, had Elvis Presley singing songs from Fun in Acapulco, had dark images of my products being used and thought I would use this site to introduce it to cookware manufacturers to see if someone would consider taking on the product. Instead I had an email come in requesting to buy one. Since I did not have a shopping cart, I had to have him mail me payment and I would ship it upon receiving it! This sale was in California and with Google Earth on my lap top, I placed a push pin in the customers home to signify a sale! I was very proud when I had a sale, but had no idea how he found me on the web? I soon received another sale off my very crude site, and repeated the process of accepting payment via a money order and shipping. Now I had pins going into the map of sales in California, Texas, Florida and so on. At this point I knew I needed to invest more and make the Taco Rack a more professionally produced item. Laser cuttings leaves a square edge and is costly so tooling needed to be purchased to stamp it out of steel instead of cutting it with light.
I took on a woman who became a small partner with me, because she believed in the Taco Rack from the minute she seen it, and she is still with me today! Together we created packaging, revamped the site, purchased the tooling to stamp and expanded the Taco Rack to two models. We now offered a Taco Rack Sr. and a Taco Rack Jr., which held 3 tacos, but was identical to the senior! I placed an order of 10,000 Taco Racks for inventory and hoped to have enough supply to keep me selling for a while. The investment of tooling and inventory, packaging, website creation and some promotional materials was very expensive. At this point I was into it for about $75,000.00! I know it was a big gamble, but I had faith in my inventions and had every finger crossed along the way. I tried to make contact with Rachael Ray, who ignored me as if I had the plague! I found most TV stars will ignore anyone who is independent. Had I signed with a big cookware company I bet they all would have paid attention, but since I was on my own, I was a no body. I invested some money in a 30 second commercial and ran it for a couple of months on a small local channel during the Rachael Ray show! With limited funds, I did not have enough money to continue to air it. You see when you are introducing a whole new way to prepare cook and serve tacos, you have a learning curve with the public to deal with. In order to educate the masses on the new technology, you really need a lot more money than I had… But I tried. During the time we were aired on TV, sales on line shot up and we were on our way to being noticed. Hits on our site went up greatly and I knew that TV was to be the way to teach the world how to cook a better taco! 0
Tara: there anything you learned developing the Taco Rack that you would now do differently if you had to do it all again?
Nicolas: YES! If at all possible, use other peoples money! NEVER trust an infomercial company, I was scammed twice out of thousands of dollars! All of us inventors consider our inventions like our children and we tend to over protect and over spend on them. We all feel our invention is the best thing since sliced bread! In my heart I knew I had a great product but only sales and income will prove me right in time. All the good wishes mean nothing if no one is interested. My best advice is to use your head more than your heart when making decisions. Predators know we are totally invested in our ideas and play that against us. They know that since we will make decisions with our heart, they can scam us at every turn. That is why a company who is established who might license your product will make critical decisions based on logic and not emotions. Take things slow, set goals and always keep your mind open for improvements. Having an open mind and listening to customers grew my product line from one item to ten items!
Tara: What advice would you give any aspiring inventor with an idea?
Nicolas: Follow your dreams! Set achievable realistic goals and try to stay positive! The road to success is littered with many rejections along the way! I try to think that one more NO out of the way is one step closer to a YES! Market test your ideas if possible in a limited form, to see if it has legs. During our market test, we have sales off our site to 45 of the 50 states as well as 5 countries. We were picked up by Amazon at a trade show and now have $15,000 a year of sales from them alone and growing.
Tara: Where can your Taco Rack be purchased from?
Nicolas: Currently you can only purchase The Taco Rack from my site, www.TacoRack.com or Amazon.com! Our Chef Series models are available through Wasserstroms Restaurant Supplies, and we are talking to other commercial outlets. We have not branched into retail yet, I am hoping to establish a successful relationship with the commercial food industry first, build a brand name and then hopefully be accepted into retail. Without big investment behind you most retailers will not consider a new product without national advertising. So that is our next big hurdle! I am still open to an investor coming in and helping me blow this out to the world on a big scale, but if not I intend to build it slow and grow organically! The questions isn’t if we will succeed, the real question is when will it happen! I know my products improve peoples lives, improve their foods and provide my fellow Americans with manufacturing jobs! If I can do all of that, at least I know I am doing what is right for my family, my country and myself!
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