Food, Family, & Hard Work: a One-on-One with Bricia Lopez

Bricia Lopez grew up in Mitla, Oaxaca in Mexico. When she moved to the US, she started working in her father's restaurant, Guelaguetza in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Guelaguetza was the first Oaxacan restaurant in the United States. It won a James Beard award in 2015 and has since been named on of the Top 10 Mexican Restaurants in the US by Travel and Leisure. It also happens to be our favorite place to get micheladas and mole.

Today, Bricia runs Guelaguetza with the help of her siblings, in addition to I love Micheladas and Super Mamas. We caught up with her to find out about all the different roles she plays, what inspires her, and what advice she would give herself if she could go back in time.

© Marielisa Argueta

© Marielisa Argueta

How did Guelaguetza get its name?

The direct translation of "guelaguetza" is reciprocity - to give and receive. In Oaxaca, guelaguetza has a deeper meaning of tradition. In Oaxacan towns, the economy is based on a system of mutual help. Whenever there is a big event in the town, people contribute to the celebrated party through a gift called a guelaguetza. For example, if there is a baptism, that family may receive 2 chickens on behalf of the town as a guelaguetza. For our family, the restaurant was our way to give back. Our guelaguetza is the gift of food and culture to Los Angeles.

What is your role at Guelaguetza?

I would say I'm the Editor-in-Chief, because I curate what happens in the restaurant. Whether the menu needs a price increase or if we need more people on the floor, etc. I put everything together. My brother executes, and my sister manages. I also oversee how we package and market everything in the restaurant and store.

Guelaguetza was your father's business. You started working here as you grew up. When did working in the family business switch from being a familial duty to being something you loved?

I knew that I wanted to be a part of the restaurant industry when I went to my first food festival. I had never been to an event where people were there to just taste and enjoy the food. There was this community of people who were part of something bigger, and I saw that this was where the future of food was going. All of a sudden, I felt that all of our efforts were being appreciated. I also started making lots of friends who were in the industry who were chefs, and they were excited just like me. We all had a shared passion for food. At that same time my dad wanted to retire, so my siblings and I jumped at the opportunity to turn this into something for ourselves.

Micheladas are having their moment in Los Angeles. The Guelaguetza michelada is one of our favorites. You can find your mix all over Los Angeles - in supermarkets, restaurants, and liquor stores. How did this happen?

We always served micheladas here, and people would want to buy the mix after trying them. We had no official product at first so we would fill up water bottles with the mix and have them pay at the register. The problem was we were having trouble with pricing. Eventually we decided to launch the mix as our own. Since Guelaguetza is a very local and unique name, we came up with the brand "I Love Micheladas" so that people who didn't know about Guelaguetza could still feel comfortable purchasing it.

You are also the co-founder of Super Mamas. What is Super Mamas, and how did you start it?

Whatever you want for yourself, it is inside of you whether you know it or not. When I found out I was going to become a mom, I was actively seeking out information but had never found anything that I liked. One day my sister suggested we should start a podcast about moms. Within the first 2 weeks of our podcast we were getting emails from women letting us know how much they liked it. The question for me was, how could we make money off of it? It thought it was cool and fun, but it was extremely time consuming. We also wanted to do a live taping of the show for Mother's Day. As we got closer to the date, we still didn't have any funding, and we couldn't find a venue for the taping. One day, I was sitting down with my friends, and I realized that I needed to start pitching the idea to people. Out of nowhere, my friend calls me and tells me Target is looking to partner with people in Los Angeles but didn't know who to do it with. I already had my pitch prepared so I sent it to them, and they ended up loving it. In the end, we had 5 partners and had this huge event that was so much more than I could have ever imagined. We had around 400 moms and kids, all these different stations and panels. It was such a beautiful experience for everyone that came together. Now you can catch our podcast every Tuesday!

How much do you think luck and timing has to do with success?

Luck and timing are really important, but things don't happen randomly. In order for the luck and timing to work out, you need to have put in the work before hand. For example, the friend who told me about Target originally wanted to have her birthday here at the restaurant. I didn't know her before then. So if I had decided not to come to work that day, I would have never met her. I also could have been mean to her staff, and we would never have been friends. It's the little things - being on time, coming to work every day, taking your work seriously - that's where the work comes in. Her call didn't come from nowhere. It came from a lot of prior hard work and a good friendship.

What is the one piece of advice that you would have given yourself at the beginning of your career?

Never stop learning. And to find and appreciate what you have today. Everybody is so caught up in trying to do something bigger than themselves that it becomes really easy to get frustrated and lose hope. Instead of being frustrated at where you are now, instead of where you want to be, you need to appreciate what you have today. If you don't appreciate what you have today and are truly grateful, you might not appreciate success in the future.

Last questions, what's your favorite thing to get at Guelaguetza.

Definitely the Tamal de Mole Negro.