How Centro Went From a Fast-Casual One-Off to a Budding Restaurant Empire

Co-owner Jami Olson and chef José Alarcon listened to their customers.

7 min read

Restaurants in 49 states now have the right to use the phrase Taco Tuesday, and to celebrate, DoorDash is supporting and spotlighting Mexican restaurants across the country. Read on to learn more about Centro!

The Centro Crunch was only meant to be a one-off thing, with Centro’s richly seasoned beef and house-made cheese sauce enveloped in a fried flour tortilla. But when Centro, the fast-casual Mexican spot in northeast Minneapolis, debuted the dish as part of a pop-up in 2020, “people went crazy for it,” says co-owner Jami Olson. She and chef José Alarcon returned to it in 2021, when the two were trying to find more ways to generate income. After running it as a special on Mondays, they soon realized it had taken on a life of its own. 

“We asked everybody what one item we should keep if we’re going to keep something on our menu. The overwhelming response was the Crunch,” Olson says. “So the Centro Crunch came onto our menu permanently. And since then, it has been our number one seller, even more than margaritas some days.”


As Olson and Alarcon contemplated new business ideas over the last couple years, they ran with what was working: the Centro Crunch. “We were like, ‘What if we spin off the Centro Crunch into its own thing, its own brand?’” Olson explains. “That’s where Hippo Pockets came along.” 

The new concept expands on that Centro Crunch. “The original Hippo Pocket is the original Centro Crunch. Now, we’ve taken it and turned it into a flour tortilla vessel,” Olson says. That includes a take on a Quarter Pounder (the Royale with Cheese), chicken and waffles, and even a s’mores pocket for dessert.

This is why Minnesotans may have noticed it has become not only easier to lay hands on a Centro Crunch lately — but to experience Olson and Alarcon’s vibrant hospitality and sumptuous Mexican cuisine beyond northeast Minneapolis. In the last two years, they have expanded Centro to two more locations at Eat Street in Whittier and Highland Park and continued to evolve through spin-off concepts: Everywhen Burger Bar, the Mexican market and bakery Vivir, an agave spirits lounge called Escondido inside Vivir, and the mostly delivery-only Hippo Pockets. That ever-popular Crunch has popped up in these new Centro locations and at Hippo Pockets, which opened this past March, playing a significant part in Centro Restaurant Groups’s rapid expansion. However, it was a long road for Olson and Alarcon leading to Centro’s taco-fueled takeover of the Twin Cities. 

“I really wanted to create brands that people will find comfort in and can come back to over and over again."

Centro initially opened in 2018 as a playful counterpart connected to Popol Vuh, a James Beard-nominated fine-dining restaurant. In 2020, Popol Vuh closed like many other restaurants that struggled through the early days of COVID. Centro, however, found ways to thrive with a menu that worked in a takeout-only environment and eventually that Crunch. The restaurant has continued to stay ahead of the curve — not only through physically expanding with the new outposts, businesses, and a central commissary kitchen in its Eat Street location but also through forming a new creative outlook. 

“I probably would have done Popol Vuh forever. I come from full service; that’s a lot of my history in restaurants and what I fell in love with.” Olson says. “When we opened Centro, something kind of switched for me, and I really, really fell in love with the fast-casual style of service and food. It’s because of the flexibility and how playful you can be, how many things you can do with it.”


In its expansion, Centro’s menu has remained focused on tacos, offering takes on familiar dishes like barbacoa, carnitas en adobo, and chicken tinga. The portion of its menu labeled “Not Tacos” has stayed simple, offering eight alternatives to tacos that include a burrito, Mexican pizza, quesadilla, and its beloved Centro Crunch.

“I really wanted to create brands that people will find comfort in and can come back to over and over again,” Olson says. “It’s not the birthday spot or an anniversary spot. You can go to Centro four, five times a week. You can kind of create whatever experience you want.”

The cascade of fast-casual spots from what is now the Centro Restaurant Group is unique, especially for a chef and a restaurateur shifting from a decorated fine dining restaurant to several casual ones. But that intentional path, following their customers’ interests, has defined Centro for what it is: something casual and fun that still takes its food seriously. But it’s that distinctive approach, a passionate care for diners’ interests through difficult times, that has kept Centro changing, expanding, and slinging tacos as fast as they can be eaten.