This article is part of the La Cocina Series, where we sat down via Zoom with the amazing women who made history as the first woman-led food hall in America. Bbot is honored to help make this community food hall possible. We want to give special attention to each chef and their journey to La Cocina Municipal Market in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more!
Chef Guadalupe Moreno listens to her daughter, Cyntia, translate from Spanish to English with an unmistakable look of pride and love. When Cyntia speaks, Chef Moreno nods along eagerly with a smile that stretches from ear to ear, radiating excitement.
“We’re a family team,” Cyntia says about Mi Morena. “My dad helps out as well as my two little brothers.”
Mi Morena, one of the new kiosks in the La Cocina Municipal Market, was born from the love and care Chef Moreno carries with her for her family, both past and present. I was able to sit down with her and Cyntia to talk about tradition, scaling business, and fighting to be heard in a brand new country.
Mi Morena, a Family Tradition
Although Mi Morena was born in 1990 on the streets of Mexico City, Chef Moreno brought it to San Francisco’s La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, helping it become one of the many jewels in the brick-and-mortar’s crown. Her Mexico City street-style tacos de guisado - handmade tortillas with various flavorful braises and grilled meats - are as delicious as they are beautiful.
Chef Moreno, the youngest daughter of 10, has fond memories of growing up in Mexico with her affectionate family and a mother with a gift for cuisine.
“When I am cooking, and when I am in the kitchen, it reminds me of my family. And it reminds me that I am cooking for them, and especially reminds me of my mom from when I was growing up.”
Chef Moreno’s mother was the keeper of the family cooking secrets, gifting her daughter with a love of cooking that flows through her veins. Chef Moreno reminisces of that time with fondness, describing her childhood memories as “beautiful” and full of love.
When Chef Moreno had children of her own, three while in Mexico, she began her business by selling quesadillas on the street. She expanded, pushing to learn everything she could about the formality of business. When I asked Cyntia what she thought of her mom’s achievements, she answered Chef Moreno’s look of love and pride with one of her own.
“I think she is an amazing woman, first of all. She has gone through a lot to get this business started. I remember back in Mexico, our only source of income was her making food and selling it out of the house, so just to see everything she has accomplished. And first, having had her food truck and now having the restaurant and making that all just from scratch. Also, doing that all in a country that isn’t her own and trying to fight for people to get to know her and her story, it's all an accomplishment, and we are all just so proud of her.”
Chef Guadalupe Moreno, the Original Morena
Although you’d assume the Moreno to Morena switch is a play on the family surname, in reality, it comes from Chef Moreno’s childhood. Cyntia laughs as she translates, explaining that she’s never actually heard this story before.
“[Chef Moreno’s] oldest sibling, he used to say there was a little kid in the neighborhood that would always go by the staircase to call my mom to come play and he would say, “morena morena come out and play,” and so everyone started calling her ‘Mi Morena.’”
Mi Morena translates to ‘my brunette,’ but for Chef Moreno, it goes deeper than a simple nickname. As the moniker has followed her through her culinary career, it’s become symbolic of who she is.
“Mi Morena comes from my household. When I was growing up, everyone in the household would call me Mi Morena, and that's me, that's my brand, that's who I am.”
Chef Morena’s focus on the Mexican community in San Francisco and emphasis on her roots are at the heart of her brand; she knows who she is, where she came from and intends on where she’s going.
“She wanted to initiate the contact of the restaurant, one to keep giving a better life to her kids as well as just for people to get to know the real Mexican food from Mexico City. And so that she can get to know everyone in the neighborhood and become a better entrepreneur.”
From Food Truck to Brick-And-Mortar
For years Chef Moreno sold quesadillas on the streets of Mexico City, learning and developing the skills to become a full entrepreneur in San Francisco. After immigrating to the Tenderloin, she upgraded to her food truck, investing in her brand.
In 2015, Chef Moreno took the next step in her business by joining La Cocina officially and working with them to grow her business, adding her unique voice and experience to the mix.
“My aunt, my dad's sister, Veronica Salazar, was actually the first business that came out of La Cocina - that's how we got connected. My mom started helping my aunt at her food stand over at the farmers market, and my auntie knew that she was able to do everything from scratch, and actually at the restaurant, she was pushing my mom like, ‘you’ve done this before. You cook really delicious food. Why don’t you go ahead and open your own business?’ She kind of planted the seed, and La Cocina helped water the seed, and now it has grown.”
The growth from 2015 has been astronomical, with not only a new brick-and-mortar business at the La Cocina Municipal Market, but a new community of fellow female entrepreneurs who share the same dream. Although these women come from various backgrounds, Chef Moreno has still found that their shared love of food brings them together.
“... women support each other, so it has been a tremendous experience. And La Cocina [Municipal Market] is just full of women entrepreneurs that have helped her understand the food and culture of their businesses.”
However, as the pandemic swept in, much of the country saw 110,000 restaurants close, and the women of La Cocina Municipal Market feared their business wouldn’t see daylight. The ending of this story is thankfully a happy one, as Chef Moreno saw overwhelming success in the face of the new industry landscape, and she thanks technology for their continued survival.
“The technology that La Cocina adopted has helped, and it will help bring in more revenue and get the business out there. Having a POS system that is really easy to use in the kitchen has been extremely helpful, especially when people can not physically come into the kiosk to order food. Having an online platform has just been really helpful to put the business out there.”
A Family of Fighters
Cyntia and Chef Moreno were all laughs and joy as the matriarch insisted on bringing the meeting to the Market floor, giving an iPhone-guided tour through the colorful maze of kiosks. The community these women build together is tight-knit; Chef Moreno spoke with pride about each business we passed. The names were near and dear to her, and at that moment, it became clear that “family business” went beyond blood.
Before we said goodbye, I asked her how other women could find their slice of found family as she had. She thought for a moment before answering with unwavering authority.
“Her advice is to never give up, always to keep pushing, to always keep fighting. Women in this country are amazing and can do anything that they think of. They can accomplish anything. And to just never give up.”
You can find more about Mi Morena here at their website or by visiting their physical location at the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace. You can also follow the cooking exploits of Chef Guadalupe Moreno on Facebook and Instagram or order the La Cocina cookbook if you can’t visit the San Francisco location.