Jasmine Hernandez grew up in Fullerton, California, the same city where she now owns and operates Chicana Vegana. The vegan restaurant serves plant-based versions of the Mexican American comfort food Hernandez ate as a kid, like the popular California burrito, Asada fries and tres leches cake.
It’s important for Hernandez to share these delicious dishes with her community because Orange County doesn’t have many non-meat options. Chicana Vegana helps fill that void — and even carnivores enjoy dining there.
The menu items tend to be fast, different, and nontraditional. “It’s better to be authentic than to serve what I think is authentic,” she says.
Well, Hernandez didn’t always feel this way. Coming of age, she had no interest or passion for cooking or serving food. She watched her grandmother and mother prepare Mexican and American dishes like rice and beans, chile relleno, Hamburger Helper, and hot dogs, but she stayed out of the way — along with the eight other people in their household. She helped with cooking as needed, but Hernandez had her career path mapped out: high school to college to the workplace. She attended UCLA and studied art, and when she wasn’t in classes, she was working.
“I didn’t become interested in food until I had to,” says Hernandez. In 2017, she went vegan. Her relatives initially gave her the side-eye, but then they got on board and four months later, they were vegan too. Hernandez’s curiosity for plant-based eating grew out of her concern for animal rights. But there weren’t many vegan products available at the time — and there was a serious lack of vegan restaurants or cafes in her area.
She first tried her hand at making vegan food to eat after class, like California burritos, Asada fries, and nachos, and her early experiments paid off. She got the proteins right which produced excellent results, so she decided to take them to the streets.
Three years later, Hernandez birthed the pop-up shop, Chicana Vegana, with the sole purpose of selling her well-tested and well-loved vegan Mexican food. She started with a small menu that reflected her.
On Saturday mornings, she would go to her regular job and then head to her side hustle. She knew she had the drive and determination to make it successful. Most importantly, “I had passion to make it grow,” she says.
It didn’t take long for the popup to consume Hernandez’s thoughts and time. The concept took off. She left her profession to pursue Chicana full time. A year later, she transitioned from a pop-up to a food truck.
She employed her loved ones to help get it going. They showed up and rolled with her from city to city. However, Hernandez couldn’t just park anywhere; each municipality had different rules and regulations. Still, she liked the practicality of the truck. It allowed her to set up faster and grow her business.
On festival days, Chicana could clear a nice profit; on others, the truck might collect meager amounts. With this type of business, Hernandez also relied on the weather cooperating. Soon, the idea of a brick-and-mortar restaurant started sounding appealing. It would provide her with better data on customers’ purchasing habits and make it easier for them to find the location.
After about a year, the mobile kitchen’s rental agreement was expiring. Once COVID-19 hit, she gave it up because places everywhere were closing, and events were being canceled. Plus, the brick-and-mortar build was already in progress. Female superhero logos graced the windows. Hernandez’s team had been promoting the new site on social media. Loyal customers and potential diners expected it to open.
“I hit the ground running,” she said. The first shutdown happened two days after Chicana Vegana’s opening. She had no online ordering portal. “That wasn’t even on my mind.” When she witnessed several restaurants folding, she knew she had to get online quickly. “That was the new expectation.” Toast helped her do just that.
She quickly learned that an online ordering system was more efficient than phone ordering — and it worked well. She also added curbside pickup. There was no longer an emphasis on dine-in. It was all about people getting their food, wherever they were. "A month earlier, I didn’t care about having an online store,” says Hernandez.
Now, companies continue to rely on online ordering to stay afloat. Hernandez attributes the success of Chicana to the technology. She’s fortunate to have tech-savvy people in her corner who can figure things out and implement new systems. She praises them, and Toast, for getting her through this journey and making it easier for her guests to order.
Though still in the midst of a pandemic, the Chicana Vegana community is making it work. However, she's dealing with challenges like customers asking if she's going to require a vaccination card, staff members having to deal with opinionated people about the mask mandate, and COVID-19 government guidelines constantly changing. All these things are difficult to deal with and it all takes Hernandez’s attention away from the daily operations.
“You don’t want to find yourself at odds with your customers and patrons,” she says. She’s still learning how to operate her new, first restaurant through a pandemic. Her experience looks different from the norm, and she doesn’t know what to expect from one day to the next.
Chicana has been operating this entire time mostly with the assistance from Hernandez’s family. They come to work while others stay home out of fear.
So, what does Hernandez do? She presses forward.
The future of Chicana Vegana is uncertain as the COVID case numbers continue to rise again. Hernandez plans to take it one step at a time. She admits that the restaurant had been going through growing pains since it opened. It’s been difficult for her to find workers. Prices for supplies have increased due to shortages. Coins are limited.
But luckily, she hasn’t had to cut her days or hours of operation like some other establishments. Her crew is still holding her down, and Chicana is busier than ever.
The best part: “It’s really nice sometimes to hear people support you and tell you how important your food is to them,” she says.
Now, she’s trying to hire new people. “That’s what’s making it hard.” Lots of businesses are looking for personnel and the workforce has options. This has caused Hernandez to reexamine what her restaurant offers employees compared to everyone else.
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Don’t be afraid to start from the very bottom; it builds character. Be consistent. Be authentic. Some days you’re going to struggle. Every restaurant does, including the prosperous ones. It’s still a rewarding experience to make an impact through food.
Still, she’s forging ahead with a new project in Garden Grove. “The food speaks for itself,” she says. “I think we have some of the best vegan burgers around.” She gets requests from folks all the time to set up shop in their cities. Are there other forthcoming locations? Chicana Vegana fans will have to wait and see.
As for the almost half a million new businesses that opened during the pandemic, Hernandez’s advice to them: “Don’t be afraid to start from the very bottom; it builds character. Be consistent. Be authentic. Some days you’re going to struggle. Every restaurant does, including the prosperous ones. It’s still a rewarding experience to make an impact through food.”
It’s a testament to Hernandez’s perseverance, resilience, and brilliance, and Chicana Vegana’s growth.
Follow the Chicana Vegana journey on instagram @chicanavegana.
Learn how a better online ordering system can help you grow your restaurant.