On January 22, Jared Simons announced on Instagram that his plant-based Fairfax restaurant Taco Vega would close in a matter of days, ending a run that lasted just over a year along one of the city’s most celebrated stretches. It was a heartbreaking loss for Simons, who had struggled to make ends meet selling grilled oyster mushroom asada tacos, tofu scramble breakfast burritos, and grilled yuba pastor bowls at 456 N. Fairfax Avenue — which of course had previously been a different restaurant, also now closed, before Simons took it over. Even at its best, the restaurant industry can be unforgiving.
But in the following days, something interesting happened. Taco Vega’s faithful supporters, spurred on by the upcoming closure announcement on social media, turned up in droves to order from Simons. And then they kept coming. Collectively the familiar crowds (and some fresh faces, too) came out to dine in such volume that it forced Simons to reconsider his plans to turn off the lights. It’s been weeks since that first goodbye call, and Taco Vega is still going.
Taco Vega’s path shines a light on just one of the many uneasy corners of restaurant ownership. On paper, it appears that Simons did everything right when opening his restaurant. He built a solid following at festivals and pop-ups; developed a business plan and secured investors; found a space with a cheery take-out window (an ideal feature during a pandemic); and he even built in padding for delays and overruns, waiting months before opening in January 2021. The prime location is good for foot traffic but tough for competition, across the street from Dave’s Hot Chicken and steps away from Jon & Vinny’s and the almost 70-year-old Canter’s Deli.
Simons has a passion for plant-based food, a cuisine that continues to boom throughout Los Angeles and beyond. Big-name chefs continue to add meat- and dairy-free dishes to their menus in order to appeal to every type of diner, while LA remains a central innovator of vegan food. The word “vegan” continues to become less niche and more mainstream, marked by Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm reopening his fine dining establishment last year with a fully plant-based tasting menu.
So how does a restaurant get everything right and almost fail? That’s a question Simons is willing to answer. He saw the signs coming in the last quarter of 2021, but doesn’t attribute the slowdown to one thing. “When I initially opened the business, we were well received,” says Simons. “There was a lot of buzz because this was something I’ve been trying to launch since 2019. This building checked a lot of boxes, with the patio in the back and the takeout window. No one on Fairfax has [a patio], and I know what it takes to make this a sustainable location. I saw steady growth all the way to the summer, and [then] things started to slip.”
Simons, like many other restaurant owners, faced a consistent post-Labor Day drop in sales. Any restaurant owner prepares for slowdowns throughout the year, especially the pre-holidays slump from September until Thanksgiving, and holds out for a very busy end of the year. Factor in thin margins, students back in school, the increasing cost of goods and labor — to say nothing of diners’ late-2021 concerns around the COVID-19 omicron variant — and you have a restaurant that cannot keep its head above water.
“I saw the sales dive off a cliff in the last quarter [of 2021],” says Simons. “I told the staff that we’ll be closing.” He made the Instagram announcement, and then the Los Angeles community stepped in.
“I figured everyone who wanted to come to Taco Vega for their last meal would come over the weekend,” says Simons. “But I ended up doing record sales. It was busier than Cinco de Mayo. I ended up shutting off the online ordering because we were slammed. The next day, we did another day of record sales.”
Some diners walked over from neighborhood duplexes, while others drove all the way from Orange County to try Simons’ vegan rolled tacos, carne asada fries, Ironman bowl (Simons trains daily as a triathlete), or the Baja-style taco made with cauliflower. Sit for an hour at the shop these days, and it’s easy to see the steady stream of customers picking up to-go bags from the front counter. Many stop to say hello to Simons himself. For now, Taco Vega’s business is back.
Simons likens this journey to his training for Ironman competitions, when he pushes himself through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “I spoke to someone in the endurance community about a 67-mile trail I’ve failed to complete, dropping out at mile 44. They always say the closing miles are the hardest part of the run.” he says. “Closing Taco Vega was my mile 44.”
Of course, the race is still far from won, but Simons knows that he wouldn’t be here without a serious amount of endurance, and more than a little love from the neighborhood.
Taco Vega serves plant-based food from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily at 456 N. Fairfax Avenue.