April 14 2021
Vegan Veganos is a plant-based Mexican food truck based out of San Jose, CA. The owners, Dalena Bui & Manuel Villa, started their food endeavor in April 2018 with just a small food trailer and were able to expand the business all the way up to a full-sized food truck in August 2020. Their menu selection includes popular comfort Mexican dishes, such as nachos, burritos, and tacos, but all vegan-based.
Follow along with their vegan journey as they spread the love for Mexican street food while showing the world how amazing plant-based food can be.
Can you provide a brief description about Vegan Veganos to the people who aren’t aware of your business yet?
Vegan Veganos is an all plant-based Vegan Mexican food truck in San Jose. We provide authentic Mexican dishes in plant-based substitutions. You can come to the truck and order any of your comfort Mexican dishes like nachos, burritos, tacos, and horchata, but all Vegan.
How did you two first meet?
Manuel: We met in high school. I actually met her at my friend’s house because his sister was her friend. I asked her to help me with some “homework”. That was my pick-up line.
Dalena: I was a freshman and he was a junior. We didn’t even know that we went to the same high school since we actually met outside of it. We ended up going to college together and we started the business there after.
Can you describe the moment(s) that made you transition from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet? Were there any real-life scenarios or documentaries that influenced this decision?
Manuel: Dalena was actually more vegetarian and went vegan before I did. I’ve been vegan for about 3.5 years now. I fully transitioned to a plant-based diet like 3 years ago, right before we started operating the business. Documentaries like “What the Health” and “Cowspiracy” really got me to change what I was eating due to environmental and health reasons. Once I stopped eating meat and dairy, a lot of my health problems went away.
Dalena: A lot of our friends were actually vegan before we were. Manuel was a huge bbq person, so I never thought he would become vegan. I never really ate pork or beef to begin with. It was always chicken and turkey, and that was what I would meal prep on. In regards to the transition, our friends influenced us and we also watched a lot of documentaries. The first one that I watched was “Vegucated'' on Netflix. It didn’t fully transition me, but it got me thinking. I did a whole bunch of research on that and learned more about why people were vegan, how animal agriculture harms the environment, our health, and the planet. However, it was the documentary “What the Health” that got to me.
A lot of people take a couple years to become Vegan, but for us, we were like “Okay, that’s it. We are going to cut it out.” That’s why we started the business too. We were cold turkey vegan and didn’t know what to eat outside of rice and beans. We decided to just experiment with a bunch of food that we already like to eat and make it plant based. That’s basically how Vegan Veganos started. We came up with all these dishes that we love to eat and it ended up being really good, which is how we came out with the food truck.
Growing up, were there any famous chefs or people that influenced you to one day create your own food-related business?
Manuel: My mom. That’s pretty much where it came from. Growing up, I was a mama’s boy so I would spend a lot of time with my mom. During vacation time from school, I would help her out with anything I could, like peeling garlic or washing produce for her. I would always be right next to her watching. I just loved the smell of the food cooking and the vibes. My mom is my inspiration. Hands down, I still think she’s a better cook than me. I taught her a lot more vegan meals that she could cook and I like the fact that she is open to experimenting with more vegan diets.
Dalena: There’s no particular celebrity chef that I wanted to be like. I just always enjoyed cooking. When my dad first came to America, his first job was a chef in a restaurant. Growing up, my oldest sister has down syndrome and autism, so I grew up cooking and taking care of her at a very young age. I knew how to cook when I was young, like 8 or 9. When I met Manuel, he also liked to cook so we would always hang out. We were young and didn’t have a lot of money of course, so we could cook together and make a whole bunch of dishes. It was just sharing our hobby together, which is what led us to grow our passion together.
Can you describe 3 of your top selling menu items to those who haven’t experienced it before?
Manuel: The shrimp tacos are a really big hit. Between burritos and nachos, pretty much everything on our menu is popular. That’s how we set up our menu. I would say shrimp tacos, burritos, and nachos are definitely the top sellers.
Dalena: Protein wise, asada, shrimp, and al pastor are the best sellers in the combination of either nachos, burritos, or tacos.
For each of those menu items, can you list the main ingredients that were used?
Dalena: For the shrimp, it’s soy-based. The batter that it’s coated in is flour, lots of spices, and we pan-coat it. As for that, the main reason why it’s so popular is the chipotle cream, which is Manuel’s recipe.
Manuel: It’s cashew based, chipotle, a couple of spices, and some apple cider vinegar. It’s a really simple recipe, but I can’t tell you the secret.
Dalena: There are a lot of people that don’t really like seafood to begin with, but they try our shrimp tacos and it’s not fishy. It has the same texture and it resembles it, so people like it. The al pastor and asada have a lot of mixtures of dry chillies, spices, oils, garlics, and a long list of different spices.
What was the reason for choosing these specific specialty dishes for the menu?
Manuel: When we first started, we had a really small trailer, so we would only bring out our street tacos and one item (either nachos or burritos). We based it off of what was selling more and eliminated the items that weren’t really hot.
Dalena: Being a Vegan Mexican food truck, we just try to bring the authentic dishes that people are used to eating at meat-based taquerias, and we would convert it to plant-based. We wanted to integrate this menu concept that people are familiar with so that they aren’t scared to try our food.
Manuel: We wanted to keep the same names like asada, al pastor, and chorizo so that when people came, it would click. Even though it says vegan all over the truck, people still questioned if it was vegan. We wanted people to know what we were selling.
Dalena: There are a lot of people who aren’t vegan who would accidentally order our food and end up really liking it, and then they find out that it’s vegan.
Substituting meats such as pork & beef with plant-based options is no easy feature. Can you describe what the process was like from idea to conception? How much trial and error occurred when creating your unique dishes?
Manuel: It was a lot of trial and error. We tried different protein options, such as soy proteins, mushroom, and jackfruit. We asked ourselves “should we use powdered spices? Or should we use actual chili? Or should we use powdered garlic? Or real garlic?” It went from a lot of testing until we did a process of elimination. It took about 6 or 7 months to come up with recipes. We were already advertising the business and we didn’t even have the recipes done yet. We were pretty crazy for that, but it all started slowly.
Another thing that really inspired us was the socal vegan Mexican food vendors since there were a lot of them in comparison to what was available in the bay area.
How was the transition between starting off with a small food trailer to a full-sized food truck after 2 years of operating?
Manuel: It was a lot of work. Our little trailer was such a learning experience and hassle. We didn’t know anything about food trucks, the restaurant industry, or owning a food business. We just went with whatever the manufacturer told us he would build, and we didn’t get a say in it. There was a lot of trial and error with that too.
Dalena: It was a really small trailer because the manufacturer threw everything into the trailer. We were bumping into each other and you can only fit 2 people max in it. With 2 people, how are you going to serve “x” amount of people that come to us? I had to stand outside as a cashier because I couldn’t be inside the trailer physically.
Manuel: Moving on to our current full-sized food truck, it was so stress-free. I got it custom built and I built it the way I wanted it to, so it flowed properly. We were able to save a lot of time and get the orders out as fast as possible. It was a big upgrade.
Dalena: It was a learning experience. If we didn’t have the first trailer, we wouldn’t have known how we would want things to be in the kitchen and how the line would flow. It was a blessing in disguise to have that trailer. Going through all those struggles with that trailer helped us figure out what we can do next to make sure we don’t have to deal with this again. Manuel definitely sat down and built how he wanted the new truck to be just so that we can make sure the line is seamless.
Tell us a bit about your daily operations. What normally comes first once the shop opens up for the day?
Manuel: When we get on-site, the first thing that we put on the griddle is the protein. We then start chopping up all the produce and portioning all the salsas, drinks, chips.
Dalena: During our soft launch, we used to make things as we go, such as the nachos. We then realized that it was wasting so much time, so we finally decided to make it more efficient by boxing the chips in advance and have it ready to be poured into nachos. It’s also the same process with the drinks. In the beginning of service, we would pour as many drinks as we can and leave it in the fridge so that it’ll be ready when the customers ordered. There were a lot of things that we tweaked now that we have more space in the truck. When we had the initial trailer, this wasn’t possible since we didn’t have the space. Now that we have the full-sized truck, we wanted to utilize all the space and hands that we have on deck to make sure we can save as much time as possible.
Since 2020 has been such a rollercoaster for food businesses, what were the main hurdles that you had to overcome throughout the process?
Manuel: Honestly, I would say that it worked in our favor. We put in our order for this new food truck to be built in December of 2019 not knowing that we would go through a pandemic. We got our truck literally in March when everything shut down. It worked out though because it gave us the time to really sit down and write down all of our recipes, come up with solutions to hire people, come out with an employee training handbook, and all that stuff. It really gave us a lot of time to construct that.
Dalena: I would say that we weren’t super prepared to actually operate out of the food truck right when we got it. Even though we got it in the middle of the pandemic, it took us an additional 2 or 3 months to figure out how many people we need to operate, what their roles are going to be, what the schedule is going to look like, and how to do payroll. We had no knowledge about payroll or our LLC. We had to figure out all the training handbooks and recipe books. We had to make sure everyone knew what to cook and that the recipes were actually precise. It kind of worked out in our favor and we had time to figure out the logistics before we hired. When we launched officially in August, people were starting to go out. We decided that we wanted to have a self-service kiosk since people preferred a no-contact service. The only contact is the person giving out their food. We aren’t restricted in a sense that a lot of restaurants had to close down due to only having in-door dining. We were lucky in that sense.
Aside from selling delicious vegan food, what is your ultimate purpose and end goal that you would like to accomplish with Vegan Veganos?
Manuel: Continue spreading awareness. We are doing it for the environment and our health as well, but we really just want to be able to provide really good plant-based food and allow people to give Vegan and plant-based food a chance. A lot of people hear the word “vegan” and they don’t want to eat it because they think it’s probably flavorless. We eventually want to have a traditional Mexican sit-down restaurant one day, but obviously a different kind of menu. As of right now, we just want to continue spreading awareness for Vegan food.
Dalena: We want to eventually have more food establishments and cuisines outside of Mexican food. It’s more so about the vegan movement and bringing all of us together. It’s about the environment and preserving our planet. It’s not about competition. We want to encourage people to open up to the idea of having more vegan establishments and providing more vegan options to our community.
We don’t use any plastic and we try not to waste. All of what we provide for you is compostable, such as the paper bags and cups. In the end, it’s more than just vegan food. It’s the movement of preserving the planet and environment, saving our animals, being healthy, and showing that this is our model and what we stand for.
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