Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Cantina 76 and the next wave of South Carolina-born franchises

Dec 13, 2018 05:21AM ● By Chris Haire

Brunch at Cantina 76

I shouldn’t be writing this letter right now. I’m not in a good place. I’m starving and can’t get food off my mind. Even worse, it’s Tuesday, Taco Tuesday. And between you and me, I’m struggling to write this sentence, much less an entire letter. But I must march onward, even with the incredible odds before me. 

See, ladies and gentlemen, not only do I have tacos on my mind, I’ve decided to take a little time here today to chat about Cantina 76, the Columbia-based taco franchise. Today, Cantina 76 stands at five restaurants strong, with the recent addition of a new South of the Border-inspired outpost in Mt. Pleasant.

All of that is well and good, but none of that changes the fact that at this very second I would gladly trade all my worldly possessions for a Cantina 76 jalapeño shrimp taco. This is not an advertisement for that tasty treat—a hand-held bit of heaven featuring fried shrimp and jalapeno lime aioli and topped with house-marinated jalapeno and pico de gallo—this is a cry for help.

Nevertheless, I must persist.

The truth is, as much as I’d like a BBQ brisket taco—chopped brisket with honey chipotle BBQ, fresh pico de gallo, and a squeeze of lime—I like to see local restaurants start off on the road to statewide or even regional empires.

Right now, South Carolina is riding a wave of new emerging franchises, including those popping up instate and out, from Husk (Charleston) to Growler Haus (Anderson), Sidewall Pizza (Travelers Rest) to Willy Taco (Spartanburg), Basil (Charleston) to, yes, Cantina 76.

I recently had the chance to talk Chad Elsey, one of the founders and owners of Cantina 76, about the growth of the chain, and he said he and his partners envisioned expanding to five restaurants, something they’ve succeeded in doing with locations in Columbia, Kiawah Island, Greenville, and now Mt. Pleasant. And while they’ve reach their goal, there are other cities in their sights, possible out-of-state locations like Asheville, Charlotte, and Savannah.

“We don’t want to grow too fast,” Elsey says. “It’s a very competitive landscape right now.”

Indeed it is, with the restaurant scenes exploding in Columbia and Greenville the same way it was in Charleston 10 years ago. And as restaurateurs are learning in each one of these cities, there simply aren’t enough bodies to man the backs and fronts of the house—even if your concept sets you apart in a crowded market.

Still, Cantina 76 has found a formula for success, but it’s also a formula that allows for the eateries to change as customers’ tastes and needs shift.

“A lot of the national chains, it seems like they get stale over time,” Elsey says. “At the local level you can adapt more to what is going on around around them.”

And Cantina 76 has adapted. Take for instance its Mt. Pleasant shop. Elsey says discussions have been had about expanding their brunch options, a smart move considering that brunch isn’t just a meal in the Lowcountry, it’s a way of life.

Speaking of a life—and the things needed to sustain—somebody needs to get me a taco, stat. It’s Taco Tuesday after all, and I’ve got tacos on my mind, now more so than ever.