Two restaurant veterans lost their jobs in the pandemic, but found success by partnering up and starting small.
By Geraldine Mendoza as told to Chris Mohney
Geraldine Mendoza worked as a manager at Jose Andres’ China Chilcano in Washington DC, until the pandemic shut down the restaurant. Mendoza joined up with Teresa Padilla, who had been pastry chef at China Chilcano, to open their own restaurant—Taqueria Xochi—which in a few months became popular enough to rapidly evolve from ghost kitchen to pop-up to a permanent brick-and-mortar venue.
In March, Teresa and I got furloughed from China Chilcano due to the pandemic. The restaurant is still closed.
I had started at China Chilcano as a server, then I became a bartender, and then last year I became a shift leader, which is an hourly manager. But before that, I went to Virginia Tech and studied computer engineering. I had a background in how to build a website—how to build a system to make everything run smoothly. But without the pandemic, I would never have thought of opening a restaurant, especially in these circumstances.
Teresa was a big part of that as well. She needed a way to get an income, since she couldn’t get unemployment, which is where she had the idea to sell food. That’s when she contacted me. She had the idea of selling cemitas. From there, we planned what would be the best route to go, and how to market it better.
Cemitas are a different kind of Mexican sandwich, like a torta. Teresa and I just thought that the concept worked. We were very proud of showcasing our cuisine. Both of us are from Mexico, so we’re very familiar with the food. There was nothing like it in the area. It’s a great product because it travels really well.
We got a great response the first weekend that we did it in May. We did a ghost kitchen for about three weeks. Then the article in The Washingtonian came out. Everyone was ordering the cemitas. A restaurant here in DC, Little Beast in Chevy Chase, wanted to partner on a pop-up, so we were there with them for about three months. That’s when we were like, “Okay, this concept worked.” We were able to get more capital. We added more to the menu. Then we opened our own restaurant in October.
It’s a very small restaurant, more of a carryout. It used to be a pizza parlor. Looking at the pandemic, we were like, “How do we make the most profit as well as spend less money on space, since due to restrictions, you can only fit so many patrons in the building?” That’s why we decided to only do carry-out. It makes more sense in what the industry has turned into now.
Right now we have seven employees. We are adding as we go, because it’s been very overwhelming. We had a plan—it was like, you’re going to do this, and I’ll do this, and then we’ll take it from there. But it’s been too much work, and we needed to hire more help, which is great. We have hired people that we worked with at China Chicano. It’s good to help them as well.
Down the line we’re going to open a second location, but for now we’re focusing on this location and trying to streamline everything, trying to make it perfect. Our next step is to open for brunch, and eventually stay open all day. Once that settles down, we’ll try a food truck. We’re taking it one step at a time. We don’t want to get too much ahead of ourselves.
To open a new restaurant now, I feel like you need to find a niche, find a demand. Create something that people can relate to, and go from there.