How Two Friends Took a Risk and Launched a Trendy Vegetarian Taco Spot
Great business and innovative product ideas can strike anytime — even when you’re working full-time on something else. Bettina Stern, a former magazine editor, and Suzanne Simon, a former editor, and environmental consultant know this first-hand: After nine years of friendship, they ditched their day jobs to join forces and found Chaia Tacos, an adored all-veggie taco shop in Washington, DC. We recently talked with the dynamic duo to get tips for making a job change, their best advice for future founders, and how to stay inspired while pursuing a passion.
Brit + Co: You both had different career experiences before you came together to start Chaia’s Tacos; what was the most challenging part of joining forces to make a complete career change later in life?
Suzanne Simon: For me, the most challenging part of starting a new career later in life was (and still is) going back to that humbling feeling that you have no idea what you are doing.
Bettina Stern: I agree, for me, it was having zero clue how to do any of this — really. Becoming an entrepreneur, business owner, and leader has come with an incredibly steep learning curve. Leadership is the practice of a multitude of professional skills that take time to develop. I had to remember what I had to offer, which was the creativity, passion, energy, persuasiveness, and adaptability to hone those skills and to dig in.
B+C: What makes Chaia Tacos special? How did you know taking a risk to start the business was the right idea?
SS: What makes Chaia special is the authenticity and organic way this small idea turned into something big. We couldn’t know for sure that it was the right idea, but we knew it was the right time — people were craving more vegetables, farmers markets were growing in popularity, and we saw that really delicious food could be created quickly and casually with local and seasonal ingredients.
BS: Americans eat even less meat today; 2019 was declared to be “the year veganism goes mainstream” by the Economist and Forbes; fully one-quarter of 25 to 34-year-olds have declared to be vegans or vegetarians. Chaia is the only taco shop focused solely on vegetables. No meat. No processed food. No exceptions. At Chaia, vegetables are not an afterthought… they’re our only thought. Which is why we give vegetables all the love and attention they deserve.
We source and use the freshest, local (and whenever possible, organic) vegetables inventively prepared from scratch, and combined with spices, house-made salsas, and other tasty toppings — all tucked inside a handmade, griddled corn tortilla. We’ve kept our menu small and simple for a reason. Honestly, we all have enough choices to make in life already, and we want to do one thing really well.
B+C: Which tips do you share with people who dream about starting a business, being an entrepreneur, or making a job switch?
BS: Think big, be bold, and take risks. I love this quote from Frida Kahlo: “At the end of the day, we can do much more than we think we can.” I also suggest saying yes more often, looking at opportunities as options, and asking for help — nobody can do it alone. Last, get global. Open yourself up to new experiences, places, and people as much as you can.
SS: Be patient, because it takes time for new ideas to fully take hold and to discover new concepts. For us, it takes 6-8 months before we see any true consistency with our customers! A few other thoughts: Don’t be too busy. Enjoy your accomplishments as you go, especially in the early stages where it can be easy to focus on what’s going wrong instead of all the things that go right; creating something can be so much harder than you think. And network! It’s so important to do this as soon as you can because being an entrepreneur is all about building relationships and keeping in touch with people.
B+C: How can someone set themselves up for lifelong career success, or experiment with different kinds of work successfully over a long period of time?
BS: Be patient and hungry. Everything worthwhile takes a long time, and the longer it lasts. Set yourself up for success by investing your energy in a sustainable way. Set your sights on a long-term vision, and consistently work toward it.
SS: Do something that you genuinely like. If you can figure out what you enjoy and what you’re good at early on in your career, you’ll be in great shape to position yourself for long-term success.
B+C: How do you stay inspired at work during long days, challenging times, or when things seem like they’re smoothly humming along and the excitement is gone?
BS: You can stay inspired by being curious; challenge yourself to keep learning and growing. It’s crucial to regularly come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking — you’ll generate new experiences, opportunities, and uncover hidden gems.
SS: I stay inspired by drawing inspiration from others, like my partner and our team; I can’t imagine being an entrepreneur by myself. I love that together we try new things, and that push each other to grow.
B+C: Which skills do you believe are good for all careers? How can they help someone in a multitude of different roles or jobs?
SS: Hone your skill of self-awareness and learn how to be open to another point of view; it’s like stepping back to the distance and looking in on how you are handling or interpreting a conversation or situation. I think this is valuable because it forces you to not be so wrapped up in your thoughts.
BS: I recommend honing a few skills:
- Communication: Developing strong communication skills is essential to being a really good leader and to grow a thriving, healthy company. These skills include empathy, eye contact, vulnerability, self-awareness, confidence, and good energy. Listen more and talk less — being an active listener encourages open communication with your colleagues, as well as with your friends and family members.
- Adaptability: There’s power in being adaptable and listening to the needs of others. Developing your adaptability will allow you to have a deeper understanding of positions and behavioral styles. In turn, you’ll be better equipped to lead people! Leaders need to understand business issues from different perspectives.
- Strategic Thinking: Strategic thinking is the ability to know what you want and how to achieve it. Learn how to imagine what the big picture is, identify an action plan for getting there, and then chart your course. Know your weaknesses too, because you’ll need to ask for help and advice from others. Work on being flexible so you can always shift gears mid-way when needed.
(Photos via Chaia Tacos)