When Ashton Samuelson graduated from college in 2008, she immediately found a job teaching elementary education – the job she had dreamed of growing up. The Arkadelphia native met her husband Austin at summer camp during high school, attended Ouachita Baptist University alongside him and moved to California immediately after graduation, where he worked in commercial real estate and she taught at a private Christian school. Everything seemed to be on the track Samuelson had always envisioned.
“When we lived in California, God gripped our hearts in a really unique way,” Samuelson told Arkansas Money & Politics.“There was a really high concentration of homeless people that lived right next to our apartment. It was overwhelming, coming from such a small town.”
Samuelson described how her day-to-day life of teaching and driving home every day, noticing the need of the homeless people right outside her home, was the beginning of a pull for both her and her husband. This pull was the start of a mission that would ultimately drive the creation of Tacos 4 Life, a taco restaurant that now has more than 15 locations and has donated more than 13.8 million meals to kids in need.
On Samuelson’s commute to work while in California, she encountered a homeless woman at a six-minute red light, every day, twice a day. One day, Samuelson decided it was time to roll the window down and get to know her.
“That relationship is what ignited the passion for me and Austin,” she said. “It helped us realize that every person has a story, and that hunger and homelessness has a name. That started something inside of us that we couldn’t really stop.”
From there, Ashton and Austin began working with a homeless shelter called Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. Here, they started learning how they might help with hunger. In 2009, Rick Stern, the then-CEO of World Vision International, an evangelical Christian humanitarian organization, spoke at their church, introducing two facts that alarmed the Samuelsons: at that time, more than 18,000 children under the age of five died from hunger or hunger related causes per day, yet hunger was the single most solvable problem facing the world.
“Just thinking about that is really overwhelming,” Samuelson said. “That’s like a natural disaster happening every single day. And here I was, just going about my day, teaching first grade. It’s not that I didn’t care; I just didn’t know what to do.”
At church that night, the Samuelsons pledged to sponsor some children through the World Vision organization. (She noted that even today, her three young boys, who are all under the age of five, are still writing to these children they sponsor as a family.) In 2010, still wrestling with how they might help fight hunger, the couple moved back to central Arkansas due to a shift in job opportunities for Austin. Ashton got a job teaching third grade at Little Rock Christian Academy, and they settled into Conway.
“We still felt this strange pull and passion toward hunger, but we didn’t really see it as a job opportunity,” she said. “We didn’t think we needed to change what we were doing with our lives, by any means.”
Just months after the move, however, Austin lost his job.
“We’d gone from living in California, to living in his parents’ basement in Vilonia, Arkansas in a matter of no time,” she said.
After the couple sold all of their stuff and moved into Austin’s childhood home, she said that God reminded them of an idea Austin had while sitting in a Taco Bueno just two weeks before.
“Austin had asked me, sitting in a Taco Bueno – which was from God – ‘What if there was a restaurant that donated a meal for every meal purchased?’” Samuelson said. “I had said, ‘Yeah! Somebody should do that – somebody who has experience and money and all the things that we don’t have.’”
The idea was modeled after popular Toms Shoes for-profit company which was founded in 2006 on the premise of giving a pair of shoes to someone in need per pair of shoes bought through their company. The Samuelsons took this tentative plan and proposed it to various organizations that could serve as the latch between the business and the mission. After developing a connection with Feed My Starving Children, they knew the time was now.
“From the moment we met them until now, they have been the biggest blessing,” Samuelson said. “They are an amazing organization that is passionate about ending hunger, passionate about serving God’s kids and feeding them in body and spirit.”
In 2011, it cost 22 cents (it has only raised two cents by 2020) to feed a child for a day. Partnering with Feed My Starving Children, the Samuelsons opened Pitza 42 in September 2011, working with ten college workers, themselves and no dishwasher. The eatery served pizza, which the couple chose with the thought it would be the easiest to make, considering their lack of experience in the restaurant business. Ashton even mentioned that at the beginning, their bed in the basement was nestled right next to a conveyor oven.
“I would go to work, and my third graders would say ‘Mrs. Sam, you kinda smell like pizza all the time,’” Samuelson said.
Two years after Pitza 42 opened, Ashton and Austin travelled to Swaziland with Feed My Starving Children, where they were able to see the tangible meals their restaurant was funding every day. The trip was a “turning point” for the couple, as at the two-year mark, they were both working 60-80 hours a week and struggling to see the mission.
“It was the most transformational experience to dig into this bucket and put rice in the bowls,” she said. “It just felt worth it for a moment. To see each of these kids put out their little bowls and see their smiles and excitement – to not just know it, but to experience it – felt worth it.
“We started seeing that the line was about 150 yards long still, and we had gotten to the bottom of the bowl. We looked at the teachers and asked for more, and they told us that was it. They told us we couldn’t pull from the next day’s supply or the young children wouldn’t have food tomorrow. Austin went to a little place up the road and got just a loaf of white bread. I watched as he gave these grown boys just a slice of white bread. They’re bowing in front of us, taking that little piece and slowly picking it off one tiny piece at a time.
“I’ll never be the same.”
In June 2014, the first Tacos 4 Life opened. Located in Conway, the taco shop existed alongside Pitza 42 for nine months. The Samuelsons realized after the fast success of Tacos 4 Life they could do more work to solve hunger by selling tacos, rather than pizza – people bought more tacos than they did pizzas at one sitting, which equaled more meals donated. Pitza 42 closed, and Tacos 4 Life became the sole company.
As for the booming success of Tacos 4 Life, Samuelson attributes it to multiple factors, including the quality of their queso.
“We were really serious about our mission, but we were just as serious, if not more, about the menu,” she said.
Samuelson revealed that she spent the greater part of the year leading up to the opening of Tacos 4 Life in her kitchen with chefs, developing recipes for some of the beloved Tacos 4 Life staples, such as their queso and puffy taco shells. In fact, this is still one of her responsibilities as co-owner of the company.
“If your product is not excellent, if your service is not amazing, if you’re not passionate about serving people where they are, it doesn’t matter what the mission is behind your brand,” Samuelson said. “We had to have an excellent product that sold itself. And then when people found out about our mission, it was just a plus.”
Tacos 4 Life now employs roughly 400 people at 17 locations. Each day, each location donates an average of 1,000 meals, adding up to raising more than 13.8 million meals in total.