Let’s Taco ‘Bout It: An L.A. Taqueria Owner Rolls Up Her Sleeves During the Pandemic

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve created an interview series to feature inspiring Latinx entrepreneurs whose stories of determination represent our community’s unwavering drive to seguir adelante.

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Published: May 24, 2020

“We don’t need to reschedule, this is a great time!” Dora replied energetically as she took my call from the back of her restaurant kitchen. We were in the midst of a global pandemic, and Dora Herrera, the owner of Yuca’s L.A., had the same vibrancy I had come to expect from her since we met in 2016.

Left: Dora Herrera, Owner, Yuca’s LA — Right: Melody Estrada, Me&Co.

Yuca’s, a family run business, was founded in 1976 with the vision of keeping family tradition alive and bringing authentic Mexican food to Los Angeles. Not an easy goal to accomplish, as they quickly found out. In true guerilla marketing fashion, Dora and her brother would stand on the sidewalk to flag down drivers to bring in business, offering double their money back if they didn’t like the food. Yuca’s finally got their big break when L.A. Times writer published a story about them in 1997.

From there, the accolades kept rolling in. In 2005, Yuca’s was nominated for and awarded the highest culinary honor in the U.S., the James Beard Award. In 2007, Yuca’s was featured as the “Best Burrito Evah!” on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Aside from the (well-deserved) prestigious awards, and more admirably, Dora and her team have remained extremely involved in their community. Just this month, in honor of #NationalNursesWeek, Dora collaborated with the Latino Restaurant Association to help feed staff at the LAC + USC Medical Center.

When I saw everything that Dora was doing through Instagram to keep her business operating, I was eager to speak with her.

Interview date: April 27, 2020

Melody: “How is business? How have you had to pivot?”

Dora: “We have always been quick service, so everything we make is to-go. However, we have reduced opening hours and employee hours. As a result of that, I have had to start cooking again. Thankfully, there have been no layoffs.

We are waiting to hear back on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the Small Business Administration (SBA). We applied to several grants including, Red Backpack, Facebook, and Verizon. Really, anything we can apply to, we are doing.

I am staying in touch with all my networks, i.e. Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (SLEI), Goldman Sachs, LA Latino Chamber of Commerce and LA Area Chamber of Commerce.”

Melody: “Wow, it seems like many things had to change internally. How have you remained innovative?”

Dora: “We are now delivering to neighborhoods whenever we are on our way home. In that way, our communities support us, and we support them. We are also helping different organizations that are feeding first responders.

In addition, I am creating a fund for immigrants that work in the food industry. Essentially, it’s a program where I can teach my famous “Cochinita Pibil,” and those who watch can donate. All of the donations go towards the fund. We have already contacted other chefs to see if we can build and do this together. My mom recently made a video on how to make chicken soup!”

Mama Yuca’s Cooks Up a Batch of Chicken Soup, Yucatán style.

Melody: “What has been the hardest thing as a business owner during COVID-19?”

Dora: “I would have to say the uncertainty. Everyday you wake up, and things change, even with the grants. The rules change, and then we have to do something else. We are constantly rebalancing, recalibrating, thinking to ourselves, not knowing if what you are doing today will help you survive tomorrow, expecting that your experience and tenacity will [help you] make it.”

Melody: “I appreciate the candidness, I think many people need to hear this. How have you managed employee morale?”

Dora: “They were freaking out a little bit when we had to cut hours. It was tough. Some of them are still doing regular hours, even though they aren’t getting paid the full hours. They are afraid of what’s next but seek the human connection.

Our employees trust us, though. Some of them have been here for over 30 years. They know we have their interest at heart. They also know that whatever we do is the best we can do for them and for us. We also always talk openly about what we are going to do. There is a constant communication.”

Melody: “That must be really reassuring, you are clearly doing something right if your employees have been with you for 30 years! How are things different for you as a business owner?”

Dora: “I am working more hours in the kitchen, lifting boxes, rolling up my sleeves. I also went on a 75 day health challenge with colleagues from the Multicultural Women Executive Leadership Program and am feeling stronger, healthier, and happier than before.”

Melody: “How are you promoting your business?”

Dora: “No one is doing marketing actually. We are short of funds, and we need to take care of payroll so we had to pare down to essentials.”

Melody: “So, how has this affected sales?”

Dora: “Well, we were down 75% in revenue. We’ve been doing better, so maybe 50% down at this point.”

Melody: “I can’t imagine how hard that must be — your hard work is certainly keeping you in business. Tell me a little about the resources you have relied on?”

Dora: “We have relied on the Small Business Administration (SBA), our networks such as LBAN, our social media pages, WhatsApp, and email for networking.”

Melody: “I am so happy to hear you are leaning into all of these resources and applying to grants. It is clear you are doing everything possible. What help do you need now?”

Dora: “Several things:

  • Financial advice.
  • Marketing, specifically around website development.
  • Understanding what’s next — how will we run our restaurant after COVID-19?
  • Thinking ahead, which is what we learned when we took the SLEI-Ed course.
  • Cutting ideas that are too far out and bringing ourselves closer to our day-to-day.”

For Dora, and many restaurants, this seems to be the new norm. Back to long, new-business hours, and applying to grants with their fingers crossed. What I admire the most about Dora is her grit, her smile, her perseverance and love for her employees and community.

Learn more about Dora and her restaurant by visiting her website and social channels (Facebook and Instagram). If you are able to offer support or would like to contribute to the success of her business, feel free to ping me, and I can make an intro.

If you’d like to support Dora and more exceptional entrepreneurs like her during this crisis, spread the word about this series and share this article with family and friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Email.

We want to hear what you think about this article or refer any entrepreneurs for this series. Send your responses to melodyestrada1@gmail.com.

Edited by: Jessica Salinas

Amplifying Diverse Founders | Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (former) | App Store Marketing (former) | CubaRican | SJSU Alumni