It was four days in, and Daniela Morales was frustrated.
For weeks, she and her family had toiled to transform the dormant storefront at 1429 Jackson St. into a restaurant of their own. Her parents, Melquiades Morales and Felipa Ventura, got the kitchen up to speed, installing equipment and perfecting their hand-pressed tortillas. Her 12-year-old sister, Elizabeth, helped decorate the dining room, trimming the ceiling in a festive kaleidoscope of Mexican papel picado. Daniela, 18, built the website, designed the menus, and set up the point-of-sale system in the scant moments carved out around her course load at Community College of Philadelphia.
They’d signed the lease in November 2019; by Boxing Day, Taqueria Morales was ready to go. But opening weekend came and went, and they were still missing a critical part of the new business equation: customers. It was Monday, Dec. 30, and the only thing Daniela heard inside the restaurant was the Selena-heavy playlist coming from the speakers.
“She was very mad. ’It’s so slow, there’s no one in here!’” Felipa recalls. “I said, 'Relax. This is not your problem. This is my problem.”
After her shift, the Carver Engineering and Science graduate pivoted to problem-solving. Daniela remembered reading about a March 2019 Twitter post that supercharged traffic to a Texas doughnut shop, and figured she could try something similar.
“(Hi), my parents and me just opened up a small Mexican restaurant in south philly and we’d really appreciate some luv,” she proclaimed from her personal Twitter account, attaching snapshots of the signage and food.
Daniela admits she wasn’t expecting much. As she went to bed, her tweet had 23 reposts. “I was like wow, that’s a lot,” she says. “Then I woke up, and it was at 1,000.” She went to the gym, then checked again — 10,000 and climbing. In 24 hours, her tweet received more than 20,000 retweets and at least 65,000 likes — viral stats by any measure, but especially huge numbers for a fledgling South Philly taqueria.
“She didn’t really get it when I showed it to her,” Daniela says of her mother, who uses Facebook but does not tweet. The next day’s open helped it sink in. On Jan. 1, they hustled from the second they unlatched the door, feeding chilaquiles, tacos, and huaraches to Mummers revelers and diners lured in by Daniela’s digital promotion.
“I was freaking out,” Daniela said. Her mother, however, stayed skeptical. “[My mom said] it’s just trends — one day they like you, and one day they don’t. A lot of people might come today. Then it will slow down.”
That’s precisely how it played out — until Camden-based YouTuber JL Jupiter visited, his curiosity piqued by the tweet. To date, his clip has logged more than 240,000 views, sparking another wave of eager first-timers. That bump helped, too, but nearly two months in, they’re still working hard, with no days off, to sustain momentum. Some days are busy, but just as many aren’t. As much as they’d love lines out the door, simply cultivating consistent business is their realistic goal.
In today’s social media climate, Taqueria Morales is the type of earnest, grassroots counterprogramming we trip over ourselves to endorse. Who wouldn’t spare a click for this tight-knit clan, cooking family recipes from scratch? But how many of those tens of thousands of people who shared the post will actually stop by and spend money? And if they come once, will they return, or has their collective attention already splintered off to the next 10,000 things?
The internet is under no obligation to worry about any of this. The Moraleses worry about it all. “[Employees] can be like, ‘not my problem,’” said Daniela, who worked at a banquet hall prior to the taqueria. “I used to be like that. But now, from this side, it is my problem. Every single thing.”
Daniela has created a Taqueria Morales Instagram account to build on its sudden social media capital. But what exactly created the buzz in the first place?
“I’m not very religious — my parents are — but I think it was God’s plan,” says Daniela when asked what unseen influences might have aided her spreading the word. “They saw the family values. People nowadays want to support small businesses.”
As a psychology student — she attends classes two days, and runs the restaurant the other five — Daniela is well-equipped to recognize the human factors that determine what goes viral.
But social media churns too quickly to do the full tale justice. Melquiades first came to the United States from Puebla, Mexico, in 1996, first to Trenton, then Philadelphia. He was hired at Victor Cafe in 2003 and remains its head chef. Like his elder daughter, he splits his time — all mornings and three full days at the taqueria, plus four at Victor, eight blocks away. His skill with Italian cuisine has influenced the taqueria’s menu; risotto replaces Mexican rice in the popular spicy salmon burrito, and there’s tiramisu for dessert. “We’re trying to make something different,” he says.
Felipa joined her husband from Puebla in 2003, when Daniela was just 2. “I wanted to keep my family together,” she says. She cleaned restaurants and houses before opening a series of South Philly corner delis, the last of which closed in 2011. After dedicating the past decade to raising her kids, she wanted to reenter the workforce to support Daniela’s education. “I tried to find a job in Mexican places, but I can’t find anything,” says Felipa. Then she saw the space for rent. Less than two weeks later, she was an entrepreneur once more.
Subtle Italian touches notwithstanding, the Taqueria Morales menu is close to what you’d find in Puebla — homemade tamales, enchiladas de mole, huitlacoche quesadillas. They also make Mexico City specialties, like the pambazo, a grilled, sauce-soaked torta roll stuffed with chorizo and hearty hunks of avocado and potato. ”What I do is what I know how to do,” says Felipa, who runs the kitchen with her friend Maribel Rodriguez. And while it sometimes affects the bottom line, she’s dedicated to cooking with organic produce and antibiotic-free meats, believing it helps them stand out. The same goes for the taqueria’s eco-friendly bags, takeout containers, and straws. “I don’t want to give my customers something I don’t eat, or I don’t use,” she says.
While Elizabeth hits the books at a Center City charter school, Daniela, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, does the same at CCP in her time outside the taqueria. “I want to be a child psychologist, but I actually like to write, which is my first passion,” she says. One day, she might even put her family’s story down on paper — one that social media, in all its engineered ephemerality, could never dream to tell as well.