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Enterprise : LEARNING CURVE: ALEGRIA RESTAURANT : Joy of Cooking : Restaurant Dream Is Built From Scratch

October 24, 1995| KAREN KAPLAN

Since opening her own restaurant two years ago, Alegria owner Nadine Trujillo found that her management experience in a large company didn't prepare her for running a small business. Instead she has learned more from another restaurant owner who has become her informal mentor. Trujillo was interviewed by Karen Kaplan.

When I was 21, I told my dad, "Let's start a taco stand." He said, "No, honey, get yourself a good, reliable job." So I worked in administration and management for many large companies. We did a lot of big, outside catering jobs, and one day I decided I wanted to do my own catering. So off I went.

In 1993 I rented a taco stand in Echo Park. I named it Alegria, which means "joy" in Spanish. I specifically chose that name because it is a joy to cook.

I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That was not what I had in mind. When I started, I thought, "Gosh, I'll get my own business and have people working for me and I'll administrate and be very successful and make lots of money." But it didn't work that way.

It was pretty hairy. My clientele was primarily Latino and we were horribly affected by Proposition 187. As soon as 187 hit, people just kind of backed off and started saving money because they were scared. They didn't go out to eat and they started brown-bagging their lunches.

The taco stand needed a lot of maintenance. My old jobs were with very profitable companies that could afford to take care of their maintenance problems.

During the heavy rains this spring, the ceiling literally fell in on my head. The landlord said I had to fix the ceiling myself. I thought: "This is it. I've had it." So I moved to a new location in Silver Lake.

We started from scratch when we moved to the new location in June. Very few of our customers came with us. We did some advertisements, some flyers and a lot of word of mouth. I'm hoping that in this first year we will be able to break $100,000. It looks like we're headed for that.

Looking back, I was so naive. When I took the rental agreement for the taco stand, I didn't ask the landlord specifically: "What are you responsible for in terms of maintenance? Will you take care of the plumbing? When was the equipment inside the building last repaired?"

There's a woman who owns a restaurant down the street from my new location and she is like a moral mentor for me. She's been in the business for eight years and she gives me advice on purchasing and personnel. She said her first three years were horrendous. She has given me a lot of hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and not just an oncoming train.

I've never thought about going back to a big company. Many times I drive home in tears, crying all the way because I'm feeling tired or stressed. I'll be sad that we didn't have more business that day, or that the refrigerator is on the blink, or that the deep fryer needs something. But I've never once thought about quitting. This is something I've wanted all my life.



Company: Alegria

Owner: Nadine Trujillo

Age: 49

Nature of business: Mexican restaurant

Location: Silver Lake

Size: Can seat 26 people

Annual sales: Expecting $100,000 this year

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