Third-generation owner Lynne Davidson receives Lifetime Achievement Award
When Lynne Davidson was 17, she got her first job at her grandfather’s restaurant in Culver City. But when she asked for weekends off, she learned what it meant to work for the family business.
“If it’s not convenient for you to work when the customers are here then I don’t need you,” Davidson’s grandfather told her.
“I gulped a big glob of air,” she remembered. “It was true. After a couple minutes I said, ‘OK, Got it!’”
From that fateful start in 1971 to becoming a manager and now owner of celebrated Tito’s Tacos, it’s that work ethic and commitment to excellence that undoubtedly helped earn Davidson the California Restaurant Association’s Elizabeth Burns Lifetime Achievement Award.
Davidson said she learned a lot from her grandfather, as well as her father who took over the family business in the 1960s when her grandfather’s health started to decline.
Her grandfather continued to show up for work even after he stepped down from management.
“In the morning he would come in, wash all the windows and then go home,” Davidson said.
Tito’s Tacos has been in business for more than 63 years and is known best for its crunchy hard shell beef tacos topped with cold cheddar and iceberg lettuce.
“They taste fabulous,” Davidson said. “I ate one yesterday, it was so good. Make sure to put lots of salsa on them.”
The salsa is made daily, Davidson said, much like other offerings.
Hot tortillas are delivered daily, the tortilla chips are fried on site daily in lard. (“I’m not sure you should be able to call it Mexican food if you’re not using lard in it,” Davidson said.)
The recipes have remained since the 1960s after a few minor tweaks, such as eliminating chorizo from the taco meat because some customers didn’t like it.
Tito’s Tacos won an award for America’s best burrito in 2015, as well as the California Restaurant Association Foundation 2017 Restaurant Neighbor Award and Senate District 30’s Small Business of the Year in 2018.
Davidson said she has been running Tito’s Tacos since the late 1980s when her dad semi-retired.
She attributed the restaurant’s success to its use of fresh ingredients and its family atmosphere.
The employees work hard, long hours and in close proximity to one another, and they make the most of it.
“Everybody is so close to each other,” Davidson said. “You’re shoulder to shoulder with everyone, so let’s make this great, let’s have some fun.
“We have a couple of people who work here who are really good with jokes. It feels like everyone is family.”
Family is important to all involved.
The restaurant’s first employee was Amado Madera, who was hired at 24 and retired at 80, and helped Davidson’s grandfather develop the recipes — and Madera’s brother was the main cook for many years. Another noteworthy fact: Madera’s daughter, Denice Renteria, is running for Culver City City Council.
“It’s the people I work with and the customers, it’s so much fun,” Davidson said.
“It’s so rewarding to see people sit down, eat their tacos and smile. We try to have a good time.
“That’s what we do here: we sell Mexican food. We want everybody to come and be happy they bought their tacos here.”
Celebrities have shared their love of Tito’s Tacos. Jack Black boasted of Tito’s Tacos’ breakfasts on Instagram.
“We generally don’t talk about that, to be honest,” she said. “We want to keep them as customers.”
Their customers are so loyal that those who leave the area have been known to make Tito’s their first stop whenever they fly into LAX.
“We get a fair amount of online orders, and sometimes people will place the order in the airport before they board so they can pick it up after they land, hopefully,” Davidson said. “That’s kind of risky these days with all the flight delays.”
Tito’s Tacos is a singular establishment, though at one time there was an Orange County franchise.
“This one restaurant does fine,” Davidson said. “Culver City is a great place. It’s been a small town environment so it’s homey and comfortable.”
Davidson was set to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020, but the ceremony was postponed until this June because of the pandemic.
Tito’s Tacos weathered the pandemic after having to close for two and a half months and then reduce their hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., as well as their number of employees from 75 to 42.
“I’m glad it’s over,” she said. “I’m not sure I could survive that again — the stress would kill me.”
As for retirement for Davidson?
“I have some thoughts of trying to cut back on my hours a bit,” she said. “But what would I do with myself?”
At the moment she’s simply thrilled to be honored by the California Restaurant Association and received her award on June 10 during the Elizabeth Burns Lifetime Achievement Award Gala Dinner at Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica.
“It was truly incredible to have all of my restaurant friends at the event who came from all over the state,” she said.
“I was overwhelmed by the wonderful words and support by people I have so much respect for. It was also really special to have over 25 high schoolers in attendance at this annual charity event that raises essential funds for local ProStart programs, instructing young people on appropriate culinary techniques and management skills needed to gain employment in the restaurant industry.
“The entire evening – from the dinner and dancing to the Mariachi band to the speakers – was just fantastic.”
11222 Washington Place, Culver City