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Tacos For Education: ‘Tuition Tacos’ Helps High School Seniors Pay for College

[dropcap size=big]G[/dropcap]rowing up in South Central and the Inland Empire, Alex Rosales was a straight F student who eventually dropped out of Fontana High School.

He preferred his hours spent bussing tables at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles on Pico where his mother was a server and his dad a cook, often sleeping in the booths after a hard shift. School was no priority.

“When I was in high school, I wasn’t trying,” Rosales recalls. “I was probably like every other teenager. I really enjoyed eating my tortas, coming home, and just watching Family Matters or Full House or Saved by the Bell. The last thing on my mind was cracking the books.”

Today the 35-year-old entrepreneur oversees Tuition Tacos, his three location-strong philanthropic chain of taquerias, which debuted in Anaheim in 2019 and recently opened its first L.A. store in Palms.

Chicken or Angus beef with your choice of flour, corn, or hard-shell tortilla credit: Tuition Tacos

The shops stand apart from their competition, not just through a distinctive approach to fast-casual tacos, but also by their commitment to contributing 50 percent of all proceeds to purchase laptops for high school seniors in Title I schools, where a majority of students come from low-income households.

These donations are Rosales’ way of giving back to the world, having made an unlikely ascension from a potential statistic to a professional success. They also honor a certain professor that changed the entire course of his life.

Preparing to drop out of community college to pursue full-time factory work due to his lack of textbooks, Rosales was pulled aside by the professor for the typical speech about how he was a “good kid” with “potential” if only he “applied” himself.

The only difference this time? This professor punctuated the pep-talk by reaching into his pocket and giving Rosales $100 for the books he required.

“That was a turning point in my life,” Rosales says. “I didn’t drop out and now someone had invested in me and I didn’t want to let him down. I ended up getting straight As from that point on.”

The soft-opening menu at Tuition's Palms location credit: Hadley Tomicki

Newly devoted to applying himself, Rosales would soon get accepted to Berkeley and earn his undergrad degree with a 4.0 at UC Riverside, before getting a Masters Degree at the University of Michigan. Later came an enviable marketing position at Microsoft’s corporate headquarters.

When the principal at his old high school caught word of his success, Rosales was asked to give a speech to the school’s current students.

He decided he’d do the school one better, announcing his intention to donate laptops to the students using the employee matching program for charitable contributions from Microsoft, only to later realize his supply paled in comparison to the demand.

“We had, like, close to a thousand kids,” he remembers. “But we only had enough to give away, maybe, 30 laptops."

"So my wife and I said, 'What can we do to invest in them all and show them love?'"

"I said, ‘Why don’t we just buy them lunch?’ And that’s how Tuition Tacos was born.”

Taco History 101, credit: Hadley Tomicki

With the understanding that school kids also don’t always have enough to eat, leading to diminished academic performance, Rosales and his wife, Michelle, sprang into action and began cooking lunch for students at his former high school.

Other schools from low-income neighborhoods came calling and soon the family was feeding 5,000 students.

This is when they decided to go bigger, feeding 2,000 people annually for Christmas in Downtown Riverside and later opening their own donation-based taco stand in Redlands, followed by a backyard-to-backyard, donation-based catering company.

Spurring a positive impact made the Rosales clan happy, pushing them to find bigger and better ways to fund their altruistic activities.

The Anaheim brick-and-mortar version of Tuition Tacos was the outcome, a scalable taqueria that has so far donated critical equipment to thousands of Southern California high school seniors to help pave their way into advanced education.

“Stanford did a study and found that 60 percent of low-income students drop out of college because they don’t have access to a laptop,” he says. “We said, ‘That’s crazy that this still happens in 2020.’”

During that time, Tuition has also been awarded for its catering work and serviced corporate clients including Disney, Amazon, Bentley, and Kaiser Permanente. The first time L.A. Taco called its diligent boss, he was busy filling an order of 100 burritos for the show NCIS.

Tuition's staple taco with steak, credit: Hadley Tomicki

As for Tuition’s food, corn tortillas with chicken or steak are options, but the centerpiece is the taco of your schoolyard lunches, with a shaggy rug of Romaine lettuce and bright yellow cheese poking from a fried shell that initially recalls a more famous taco phenomenon that resides close by in Culver City.

But a commitment to quality and process stands out from the first bite. The Angus beef is hand-cut and bears a markedly beefy flavor you won’t find in the typical fast-Mex Megalodons. The cheese is freshly grated and tortillas are fried in-house.

“Me and my wife want to give everything we have away...”

Tacos come with a cold, salty salsa roja, and chipotle crema. Rosales tells us the recipes hew closely to the food he grew up on in L.A. and San Bernardino.

“If you wanted a fast-casual California-style taco, what a lot of people consider an ‘American’ taco,’ and you wanted it to taste homestyle, where would you go?” he asks, noting Tuition’s desire to pay tribute to Taco Bell’s San Berdü origins without the industrialized feel of that franchise’s food.

The tacos may not quite hit the exalted heights of the signatures at Chuy’s Taco Dorados, but are head and shoulders better than its nearest competitor. Neighbors could probably even say, “The only thing better than a Tito’s Taco is Tu... ition.”

The soft-opening menu at the Palms location currently has a short selection of burritos, quesadillas, bowls, and tacos with your choice of tortilla. It’s hard to imagine anything other than a crunchy hard shell as the ideal vehicle for the carne molida-stuffed tacos, which are priced at $2.50.

Rosales is excited about Tuition’s growth, noting potential new locations coming to San Diego and Phoenix next year. After all, the bigger the business gets, the more students it can serve.

Tuition Tacos, newly opened in Palms, credit: Hadley Tomicki

It’s an honor the local man takes seriously, having seen the power of education to transform lives as students catch up with him years later to acknowledge their debt to him for giving them a needed push through their renowned universities.

“If a taco guy slinging on the corner can come back and give, the onus is on you to come back and give.”

“I tell the students, ‘I’m a taquero,’” Rosales says. “I sell tacos for a living. You’re going to be doctors or lawyers or whathaveyou. You have to come back and help the community. If a taco guy slinging on the corner can come back and give, the onus is on you to come back and give.”

Loyal to his mission, Rosales humbly refuses to even call himself the owner of the concept he launched, preferring to think of it as belonging to the young people it provides for.

“Me and my wife want to give everything we have away,” he says. “Because it’s not ours. These aren’t our resources. They’ve been entrusted to us. It’s up to the powers that be for the operation to flourish. We just know that hard work gets blessed.”

Tuition Tacos ~ 11136 Palms Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034 ~ (424) 353-0028

Tuition Tacos in Palms, credit: Hadley Tomicki

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