The Marin County dump isn’t exactly the kind of spot budding restaurateurs often see as being ripe for opportunity, but for Yvette Vega and her brothers, the busy San Rafael waste and recycling hub had plenty of hungry customers eager to see their humble taco truck each day from noon to 3 p.m. Part of their route through Marin in 2004, the young siblings typically worked 100-hour weeks hawking tacos wherever they could find a place that would let them stop for a few hours.
But Marin Sanitary was the stop that put them on the map.
“It was most of our business,” recalled Vega, 29, who now sits in the brick-and-mortar restaurant, El Roy’s Mexican Grill in Petaluma, she co-owns.
Opened in 2016, the restaurant is just part of the growing El Roy’s empire that also includes three taco trucks and a thriving catering business. The popular eatery also will have a permanent hub in the Block, a soon-to-open Petaluma food truck court. Voted the “Best Taco Truck in Sonoma County” by Press Democrat readers in 2014 and 2015, Vega, a second-generation Mexican-American, still can’t quite believe how far she’s come in the past 12 years.
“We never thought we would have any of this. We’re just so grateful to even have a restaurant,” she said. “We just want to see where it will take us from here,” said Vega, who is one of the “three jalapeños” of the El Roy’s logo — the other two are her brothers and restaurant co-owners Roy and Fernando Cabrera.
These days, the young mother lets employees do much of the heavy day-to-day lifting while she manages the restaurant’s finances, permits and catering. But she also serves as cashier, dispatcher, cook or whatever else needs to be done as the business continues to expand. Opening the restaurant on a Friday morning, she pulls chairs outside and checks on the kitchen before sitting down to chat.
Though their fleet of bright orange trucks and cheery restaurant may seem to be an overnight success for newcomers who line up for their sopes and tacos in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, Vega said the welcome wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic in the early days, before food trucks became downright trendy.
“When we first started, people didn’t want a food truck on their property. We got a lot of pushback. We were turned down a lot,” she said. “They thought we were one of the ‘roach coaches,’ and that was the stereotype. Back then, that’s what people thought of food trucks,” Vega said. She admits that now, “there’s everything out there,” from questionably run operations to higher-end trucks with chef-types making gourmet burgers. For El Roy’s part, they’ve focused on keeping the quality high, prices low, and word-of-mouth advertising from happy customers to keep their operation growing.
“We knew we could be clean, quality, fast, efficient and priced well,” she said.
A customer, seeing Vega, shared the description she and a friend have come up with: “We call it cheap and cheerful, or CC. We love it here,” she said. Which is exactly what Vega has worked for with the restaurant.
Hailing from the city of Celaya, in the southeastern Mexican state of Guanajuato, Vega said her father once owned a taqueria and brought his recipes to America — the basis of many of El Roy’s dishes. To support his family, he worked in landscaping and Vega’s mother cleaned houses, using food to bring the family together on weekends. Vega credits the constant hard work of her parents that fueled Vega and her brothers to succeed in their own lives.
“Our gasoline was that we saw the struggles of our parents. Every vacation, we learned that you better go to summer school if you don’t want to spend the summer cleaning houses or working with dad,” she said, laughing.
Brief visits to Mexico to see family were precious, however.
“We went once a year for four days, we drove the whole way. You keep all of those great memories,” she said.
The struggles of her family also helped her see a way through the bad times.
“When obstacles come your way, you have to find solutions. You can’t just stop and take days or weeks to think things through while everything is still moving. I learned that if you can’t do things one way, you have to find another,” she said.
But her biggest obstacles weren’t the 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours, dating her now-husband while working on the food truck (“Our dates were to Costco for supplies,” she recalled) or taking in just $18 for a full day’s work.
“Being a Latina, there are a lot of stereotypes of staying at home and taking care of the kids, and your husband taking care of you,” she said.
Vega hopes that her children, 6 months and 4 years old, will have an easier path to fulfilling their potential.
“I want my kids to do what they want to do … No limitations. That’s what my parents came to this country for.”