Three years ago, Mayra Archundia bought a Mexican restaurant in Torrance called Cilantro Grill — and kept the same meat-based dishes so she wouldn't lose her customer base. But for two years she also served a "secret" vegan menu that diners had to ask about. Thanks in part to Yelp reviews, demand for vegan items grew and the hush-hush days are over. Those vegan plates are now displayed prominently on the menu.
Archundia, herself a vegan, saw a direct relation between how much she promoted her vegan items and her profits. With this in mind, she changed her restaurant's name from Cilantro Grill to Habaneros Pepper to signify a fresh start. A massive portion of that fresh start was placing signs out front and on her windows explicitly announcing vegan and vegetarian dishes. These dishes include soy chorizo tacos, a TLT (tempeh), enchiladas, crispy taquitos, fajitas and a pambosa, also with soy chorizo.
Saving room for dessert is a must, thanks to the fried plantains and vegan Mexican sweetbread that's reason alone to make the trek to this nondescript mini-mall. But before you rush to the South Bay, the sweetbread — and the array of vegan cupcakes — sells out quickly every morning, so maybe call ahead to save a few. In the meantime, turn the page, as we talked to Archundia about her restaurant, her vegan menu, and why it's no longer secret.
Squid Ink: How did the vegan menu begin?
Mayra Archundia: I was working on the vegan menu, but I didn't tell people until I started asking my customers if they were vegetarian. People starting requesting more veggies and getting more interested in healthy items and I was like, "You know what? I've been vegan for five years, so why not throw in some vegan food, you know?" I gave it to my kids and a couple friends and they were like, "This is good. When are you going to put it on your menu?"
I wasn't sure because we do a real authentic Mexican cuisine from my country. I didn't want to send away my regular customers, but at the same time, people said I was in the area and everyone was taking care of themselves, so just give it a try. A few customers began requesting a veggie burrito and then I did the soy chorizo. I started making more things out of my diet and that's when everyone started putting it on Yelp. More people came and said, "We heard you have vegan items."
SI: Did you lose any customers as your vegan menu expanded?
MA: Not at all. Actually, my numbers switched. The ones for meat are now for vegan and vegetarian, so we have an equal number. Our numbers are growing. We've got people coming from Valenica, Sacramento, Asuza, Riverside, Orange County. The other day, we had people come from San Diego and they were like, "We came exclusively for your food because we Google'd it and Yelp'd it."
SI: Is it scary to serve vegan food at an establishment that serves meat? Were you skeptical that a vegan menu would work?
MA: Everyone uses their cell phone. Once you click, you want to try it and that's how everything starts. When people try something, they love the place. Now I'm like, "Why didn't I open this place vegan and vegetarian Mexican?" I've had people — no joke — who was crying. She was thanking me for my vegan menu and that I brought this to the neighborhood. It's a pay-off for me. It's more than enough for me to think, "Gosh, I'm doing the right thing."
That pushed me forward to bring even more vegan stuff because now I know people really love the food. When I came up with idea for my sweet Mexican vegan bread, we were making little portions. Now it's more and more. People take them to the office and I know it's growing.
I'm vegan and I totally love animals, so to even sell meat is hard. I can't have materials that say "compassion over killing" or "love them, don't eat them" because I'm still selling it. I'm really looking forward to the day when I don't have to have meat in here and just being totally vegan and totally vegetarian.
SI: So is the name change a reflection of you trying to go all vegan or vegetarian?
MA: Definitely. The main idea of adopting Habaneros Pepper is definitely identifying myself with habaneros. I always tell people it's hot and spicy and it's like me: I'm hot. I'm spicy. Habeneros Pepper is something else. It's a new generation of Mexican food with vegan and vegetarian food.
SI: You're located in Torrance, a suburb. I don't often associate veganism with the suburbs, so what's the response been from locals? Are there more local vegans than I would think?
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MA: Yeah. I want Habeneros Pepper to make a vegan/vegetarian club because every day we see people walk in and we can identify them, like, "They're vegan." I don't know why. It's awesome because the first thing they look at is the menu. Now, the vegan items are in front — we're not hiding anymore. Yeah, there are a lot of vegan people in this area. You'd be surprised.