Native Texan Steven Martinez-Thiel is looking to bring Tex-Mex culture to Grand Rapids through his specialty breakfast taco business after falling in love with the Mitten State over a decade ago.
Martinez-Thiel founded Basalt in February as a modern Tex-Mex concept that brings “an elevated yet approachable culinary experience” to West Michigan, combining diverse flavor profiles with a focus on craft food, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and “the unbeatable hospitality that Michiganders are known for.”
The business is currently in development mode in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market incubator kitchen, at 435 Ionia Ave. SW in downtown Grand Rapids.
The incubator kitchen program provides “customized business counseling to budding and existing food entrepreneurs in a supportive and flexible environment that fosters production and creativity in a licensed commercial kitchen.” Since its beginnings in 2013, 1,000-plus startup food entrepreneurs have received individualized business counseling services through the program and 14 have graduated from the program. In 2020, 170 local entrepreneurs have been mentored, with 11 launching a new food startup and six graduating from the program to their own facilities.
“Though the pandemic has significantly impacted restaurants and food businesses, it has not hindered our community’s creative entrepreneurial spirit,” said Ryan Bolhuis, culinary operations manager at the Downtown Market. “Food entrepreneurs are resilient, and the businesses in the incubator kitchen program have creatively adapted to challenges they’ve faced this year so that they can continue providing quality food products to our community.”
Throughout 2020, Martinez-Thiel has brought his food to the Fulton Street Farmers Market and other local farmers markets and pop-up events in order to build a loyal customer base of breakfast-taco lovers.
During the summer, he transitioned Basalt’s menu from premade to made-to-order with the purchase of a mobile kitchen trailer. He did some ready-to-eat food sales through the Bridge Street Market until November, and has done some small-scale catering, but currently is focused on preparing for the 2021 season ramp-up with a consistent market schedule and an expanded menu.
Raised in Houston, Martinez-Thiel moved to Michigan about 10 years ago and has since gotten married and put down roots in Grand Rapids. He worked in the food industry in dining room management and catering for a decade between Houston and Grand Rapids, including a two-and-a-half-year stint as the catering manager at Marie Catrib’s in East Hills before it closed in 2018.
“It was really that experience that started pushing me toward wanting to open my own place,” he said.
He grew up eating homemade Tex-Mex food at home, which he said is known for pulling inspiration from Mexican cuisine in a “playful” way, not being afraid to draw on multiple “outside flavor profiles, ingredients” and more. In developing his Basalt concept, he said he wanted to meld that genre of cooking with the farm-to-table emphasis that is so prevalent in West Michigan.
“There are so many things about Texas that I love and couldn’t get here, and so it’s really just an excuse for me to make and eat a lot of tacos,” he said.
Martinez-Thiel said tries to source as many ingredients as possible locally but orders his spices and masa from the Southwest, as those items are not typically widely available here.
“(I’m) doing what I can, in terms of buying local and seasonal, but also making sure that I’m not compromising the quality of the food or the product,” he said.
The Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen has been a good place for Basalt to test, iterate and find its footing, Martinez-Thiel said.
“I’m really happy to be in a space where I have room to work and I have all the tools that I need, and the staff at the incubator kitchen, particularly Ryan (Bolhuis), the kitchen manager, has been really helpful and has done a lot to guide me and to help me figure out a lot of things. I’ve been working in restaurants for a long time, but I’ve never run my own business. It’s a much different animal, and having that support there has been great,” he said.
He added being able to “talk to and build relationships with other tenants” has been another huge plus.
“I would say that I’m probably much better off as a business owner because of those relationships that I’m building,” he said.
While growing Basalt into a brick-and-mortar shop “with limited dine-in and a nice patio” is his eventual goal, Martinez-Thiel said the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed that dream farther out, likely into 2022.
For now, he and his three employees are working on building up the business to ramp up full speed when the prime market season resumes at the Fulton Street Farmers Market in May.
“The combination of being based out of the incubator kitchen and then being able to sell at the Fulton Street Farmers Market has just been a really solid situation,” he said. “It’s a really amazing community.”