When the recession hit, Jose Vega went from thriving as a Realtor to fighting to keep his home while struggling to support his wife and two children on a back waiter’s salary.
The San Francisco State University graduate with almost superhuman diligence became a well-known activist fighting to keep people in their homes, and he spent about five years battling the banks in a bid to retain his own property. Although Vega is proud of this work, he still needed to find a way – a whole new career – that could feed his family.
It didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial Salvadoran to wake up and smell the pupusas.
While Vega has no training as a chef, he has restaurant experience and a talent for churning out killer pupusas. As much as his out-of-the-box take on the Salvadoran staple, Vega says the connections he developed with local career-guidance resources offered by Kitchen@812, Sparkpoint and Chevron Richmond played a significant role in the creation of Izalco Catering, a gourmet pupusas company that has seen tremendous progress in the last two years.
“I am 100-percent self-sufficient right now and my business continues to grow,” Vega says.
“How was I going to make an impact?” he said.
First, Vega took advantage of the country club kitchen where he was employed to both refine and “play around” with his recipe. He took a risk by creating gourmet versions of the pupusas with cultural twists, such as one with chipotle chicken called the Southwestern, another called the Mediterranean and a veggie option.
“We added a little almond in the mix to give a thicker texture, and sure enough it worked,” Vega said. “My wife and I started inviting family and friends for tastings, and people would come, eat them and love them.”
But Vega knew having a good product is just one step of creating a good business. Where would he produce and sell his pupusas?
That’s when Vega met Maria Alegria who introduced him to Kitchen@812, the Pinole-based nonprofit that helps budding “food-preneurs” launch their businesses. The nonprofit, operated by the West County Business Development Center, offered a kitchen and other resources to help kickstart Vega’s pupusas venture. It also connected Vega to a matched savings program offered by local financial aid and support center, SparkPoint.
“Kitchen@812 had a workshop one time on how to keep records. This is what you need to start saving for taxes, this is how you do it, that kind of thing,” Vega said. “Also, when I was dealing with the bank on my house, [Alex Gomez of Kitchen@812] helped me prepare a profit-loss statement and financial statement that I could present to the bank to receive a loan modification, which helped me keep my house.”
He said of Gomez and Alegria: “They will go out of their way to do something for you.”
Vega is now tapping a loan program sponsored by Chevron Richmond that he aims to use to purchase a food truck to expand his business. The folks at Chevron Richmond believe in his food so much, they’ve tapped him to cater company events.
Today, Vega looks back upon his past life as a successful Realtor with a bit of exacerbation and a huge sigh of relief.
“I had an idea: I knew I wanted to sell these pupusas, I just had no clue how to go about it,” he said. “I had to reinvent myself.”
And through diligence and the courage to ask for help, the formerly thriving Realtor says he’s once again tasted success.
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