Since 2017, Ascension "El Chon" Labrada and his crew have made over a million tacos and have given them away for free.
El Chon Tacos and Catering serves free tacos outside the four Mint Cannabis dispensaries around town. The taco promo started in 2017 when the Mint Dispensary opened in Tempe.
"Raul Molina asked if we could make the first [promos] for their dispensary customers," Labrada says. "We would give away about 700 tacos in those days."
Then, Molina, the COO of Mint Cannabis, which also has dispensaries in Michigan, requested Labrada hook everyone up with free tacos. The Mint has footed the bill ever since.
"People can't believe we give the tacos away for free," Labrada says, serving people waiting in line on a mid-January afternoon in Tempe. "Do you want carne asada or al pastor tacos? With red or green salsa?"
The street tacos, wrapped in 5-inch corn tortillas, are inspired by tacos made by Labrada's family in Sinaloa, which is a state in Mexico about 750 miles from Phoenix.
"El Chon," the name of the taco and catering business, came from Labrada's childhood nickname, "Chon." When he was younger, he was already passionate about making tacos, as his family-owned famous taco stands in their home state. As he grew older and wiser, Labrada dreamed of one day continuing the family tradition of making Sinaloense cuisine, including tacos, in the U.S.
When Labrada and his family relocated to metro Phoenix, they continued the taco-making family tradition in 2002, catering events including weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, and corporate parties. Besides tacos, the family is known for their barbacoa, which is cooked with beef, potatoes, carrots, and chile.
Labrada also worked at Rubio's Coastal Grill, learning the corporate ways of running a restaurant business, then applying it to his taco stand. "In 2010, I quit my job and ran El Chon full-time," he says.
"We became friends and started doing charity work together," Molina says. "When we started at the Mint Cannabis project, it seemed natural to bring him aboard."
Part of the astonishing number of free tacos was given away in 2022. Labrada and his staff made and gave away most of the tacos outside of the Mint's flagship dispensary in Tempe. On the three cannabis-related dates of April 20, October 13, and November 23, Labrada estimates he and his team gave out over 3,000 tacos per day.
April 20 is known as Weed Day or 420, a day when cannabis cultivators, consumers, and advocates celebrate and smoke pot. It's one of the busiest days of the year for dispensaries. On October 13, Mint Cannabis in Tempe became the first dispensary in Arizona to remain open for 24 hours.
Green Wednesday on November 23 is the second-highest-grossing day for dispensaries, as they offer serious discounts and deals. "For that day, people bring their friends," Labrada says, so they can split the BOGO deals. "They all get free tacos after."
For these special days, Labrada, his family, and staff, which totals 15 workers and assistants, prep about 200 pounds of meat the night before. On non-holidays, they set up and give out free tacos at the Mint stores in Mesa and the two locations in Phoenix.
The tacos are always free, with a limit of two per person, and they are never infused with THC, Labrada says, clarifying a common question he receives.
Over the years, as the amount of Mint Cannabis locations has grown, so has the popularity of Labrada's free tacos. In 2017, there was one dispensary in Tempe, with 10 free taco dates averaging about 1,000 plates or 2,000 tacos per day. They gave away approximately 20,000 tacos in that inaugural year.
In 2018, they had two dispensaries and gave away about 48,000 tacos. In 2019 they provided 72,000 tacos. In 2020, 120,000. Then by 2021, the Mint had three dispensaries, bringing up the yearly taco tally to 210,000. Last year, the numbers came in at 202,000.
"Total for all time is 1,002,000 tacos which cost about $752,000 in cost to the Mint," Molina says in an email.
It's not just hundreds of thousands of free tacos the Mint funds. Molina and Eivan Shahara, the Mint Cannabis CEO and co-owner, have donated more than $3 million to locals in need since they opened the dispensary in 2017.
"And when my family visits us in Phoenix, they always request me to make them queso birria tacos," Labrada says. The queso birria tacos and mulitas are not a part of the taco promotions with Mint.
On February 10, Mint will offer free tacos at its new dispensary on 75th Avenue, Molina says. "Everyone is always welcome and no purchase is necessary," he adds.