Episode 1 Can You Stay True to Your Culture and Succeed in Business?

Vanessa Acosta (Wasi Clothing) and Joy Alvarez-Tostado (Tacos 1986) compare and contrast their approach towards entrepreneurship in saturated markets and how keeping to their voice and culture made them stand out above the rest, sharing how they had to forge their own playbook and leverage the power of voice and culture.
Apr 18, 2024 — 7 min read

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You Two Should Meet

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Joy Alvarez-Tostado: I take a lot of pride in this taco. It was in the cover of the LA Times, and I believe it to be the best vegan bite in Los Angeles.

Vanessa Acosta: My name is Vanessa Acosta. I'm the founder of Wasi Clothing. We are an online e-commerce business at wasiclothing.com.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: People know me as Joy, I'm one of the co-founders at Tacos 1986. We're the fastest growing, fastest growth in Taqueria in America.

Vanessa Acosta: So where in LA are you?

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: I'm in Hollywood. That's where we started. First time I ever sold a taco was in the corner of Highland in Lexington, and I've been there almost for four years. I haven't been able to move.

Vanessa Acosta: This is where it started. I can't get myself to leave.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: I can't sign a house lease, but I can sign a business lead left and right.

Vanessa Acosta: So wait, how many locations do you have now?

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Six locations all throughout the city. We make sure that all the six locations get fresh onion, cilantro, guacamole, the five different salsas, so they all look and taste the same.

Vanessa Acosta: That's probably why you have so many locations. The standards are high.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado Yeah. Well, we want to be the greatest taqueria in America. There's 3000 taquerias in Los Angeles, so that's going to be super hard to do. But that's the mindset, that's the purpose. Our product and concept is so fresh that we might be able to do it. What about you and your lovely business? Would you tell me a little bit about that?

Vanessa Acosta: Yeah, so I have a clothing brand called Wasi Clothing. It's based here in Los Angeles. It's an e-commerce website, and it's a sustainable Bolivian American brand. So it's very conscious in the way that we produce everything. And the way that I design also is inspired by my own culture or just the umbrella of what it means to be a Latina person.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: And where did you get your inspiration to start?

Vanessa Acosta: I was working for the fashion industry for maybe a decade. And the fashion industry isn't that well known for treating people of color in the best way. I was the only person of color within the design room. All the design room people, they're all white, and then everyone in the warehouse is Latino. I kind of lived between these two worlds that kind of pushed me to create my own business that was Latino owned and also strived to be representative of many people. So that's kind of what inspired me. And then also being Bolivian and being such a small community, I wanted to some way incorporate that. So Wasi is like a catch one word.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Wasi?

Vanessa Acosta:  Yeah. W-A-S-I got it tattooed right here.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Wasi. Wasi. And what does Wasi mean?

Vanessa Acosta: So it actually means home in Quechuan, which is an indigenous language that is spoken in Bolivia, Peru, and my grandparents speak it. So when I was starting this business, I knew that I wanted the name to mean something, and I remembered I opened up a notebook and I found this word in there and I was like, that's what I'll call it. And it's kind of this full circle honoring my ancestors, but also creating a safe place and a home for all of my customers to come shop. They feel represented, they feel seen in what I design. There's a lot of things that have made the business the way that it is.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: But you stick to your Bolivian roots, obviously, or Latin American roots. You get your motivation exactly from the, okay. Super cool.

Vanessa Acosta: How about you? What with your identity and tacos?

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Well, me being from Tijuana, Baja, California, that's the house of the best taco in Mexico. So they say, my friends, my family have a big part. When I was a kid, me and my neighbor went and rode this bike, and after riding for hours, we got hungry and we stopped at a taqueria and he's like, what do you want? And I'm like, it was like the first time ordering anything at a restaurant. And I'm like, “dos tacos de carne asada”. And after riding the bike after being hungry, that bite right there, I was like, whoa. I've had tacos before in my life. But that moment right there was like, this is so delicious. I could eat this every day. And oh my, that flavor, that moment stays with me. And then I started being a cook or started my cooking career. And everywhere I went from San Diego to Los Angeles, New York, Paris, nowhere was this bite to be found. And as a chef or as a cook, I was like, maybe this is something that I could offer to people. That's the image that I want to offer. That's my inspiration.

Vanessa Acosta: That nostalgia, that flashback to childhood.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Do you have something that you feel very proud of that people order the most?

Vanessa Acosta: I used to make these matching Frida sets. Once the business blew up on TikTok, I was just oversold. People really love Frida Kahlo, so it was backward for months, but because of that, it allowed me to create more. So I've created a bunch more designs that people really love. I do a lot of Spanglish designs.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Being the city of the Spanglish speaking community,

Vanessa Acosta:  When the Bolivian community shows up, they're like, take all my money. Anything. You create all

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: The support. Take all my support. Amazing. That's super cool. Yeah, very lucky. 

Vanessa Acosta: What's your favorite taco that you sell?

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: My favorite taco. My favorite taco and I eat tacos every day. My favorite is the adobada taco pork marinated in adobo, and we put it on a vertical spit. Some people call it al pastor. That's my favorite taco. That's why I got into making tacos in the place, building those vertical spits. Although we have an amazing vegan option, I take a lot of pride in this taco. It's the mushroom taco. I kind of invented it or the recipe. I've never tasted anything like it anywhere. And I believe it to be the best vegan bite in Los Angeles, handmade corn tortilla with sauteed mushrooms, the masha vinaigrette, onion, cilantro, guacamole, salsa, who's on the cover of the LA Times. So I'm proud of that one.

Vanessa Acosta: I'm going to try those. 

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: You have to have to. And do you have a physical store, brick and mortar?

Vanessa Acosta:  No. So I'm strictly just e-commerce, and I sell wholesale through different stores and boutiques.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado:  You have a webpage where I can find you or just Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.

Vanessa Acosta: All of those things? All of those. And that's honestly what's happening a lot more lately. People don't really go to malls anymore. You just easily get it online.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: It happens with the food too. We were a very physical store. Tacos are known to not travel well, but right now with technology and ordering online, we've been able to adapt and it became an amazing business. That's great. As far as sales go and getting the brand out there in different communities and people's homes, it's been a huge learning factor for us. How does technology has helped yours.

Vanessa Acosta: Yeah. Technology, I mean, is a huge part for e-commerce, but Square was a huge help when I started doing popups. So even though I am online only every once in a while there's popups that happen in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So pack everything up. I do in Person and Square is there to help me out with every transaction. And I usually don't bring cash to any popups because…

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Cash free operation.

Vanessa Acosta: Cash free operation, and then I've got my little Square. It's so easy, I just plug it into the phone.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Do you have portable or you plug it into your phone?

Vanessa Acosta: Yeah, plug it into the phone.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: I have all the units. I have the POS of the store. I have the portable one. You, Hey, what's up? What do you want?

Vanessa Acosta: It just makes me feel more official.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: You look pretty cool.

Vanessa Acosta: That's helped me a huge way. It's just easy to just track every transaction, see what's coming in. Coming in and out. Yeah,

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: It's like the core of our catering business too. So emails come in, it helps us get the money in and get the product out as fast as we can. Getting a tacos 1986 package that you open and you get aroma and a little dopamine like, oh, I'm going to eat these tacos. It's something that is very nostalgic and cool to me. And that bite, that unique bite, that's a Tijuana style taco, mmm.

Vanessa Acosta: That nostalgia, that flashback to childhood.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: What about you? What are your thoughts on bringing authenticity to your brand?

Vanessa Acosta: When I started my business, when you start a business, it's very small. Very small. So I got in front of the camera and I do behind the scenes. I make sure to make my customers feel like I'm being transparent with them. Hey, if I'm going to say I'm a sustainable business, I'm going to show you how we're being sustainable. I'm not going to greenwash it and say I'm being sustainable, but actually not doing the practices. So I think that really has made the customers really appreciative and really love the brand because they feel like they know me like we're family. We're not just a product. There's people behind this. So what are some goals that you have for the future? What's the ultimate dream?

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: The world Chico. No, I'm kidding. No, I would love to open in Japan one day, but obviously I would love to open in every state and give the young community, the young kids of the United States, the opportunity to have a taco experience like I did. So that's a goal. 

Vanessa Acosta: Big goal.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Be the first billion taqueria in America. What about you? What are your goals? 

Vanessa Acosta: I am trying to elevate the brand more and find better sustainable practices and kind of incorporate more technology into producing my own fabrics and stuff like that, but also producing those fabrics in Bolivia and using Bivian people. Wow. And eventually, it's always been a dream of mine to be the first Bivian designer to show at New York Fashion Week. So that's why I want to elevate the brand so it is ready to be shown on the runway.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: That's a cool goal to have. Yeah. I hope I get to do a popup there and you'd be, Hey, what's up girl? Making tacos here.

Vanessa Acosta: The snacks will be tacos. 1986. We'll see each other at the top. 

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: Let's go girl. Amazing.

Vanessa Acosta: So my biggest takeaway talking with Joy was his confidence and his drive to keep pushing. Even though they were challenges and bumps in the road, he made it happen.

Joy Alvarez-Tostado: What I took away from my conversation with Vanessa was she's very devoted to her company, to her roots. I really appreciate her work ethic as far as keeping everything as sustainable as possible. Her input on being an e-commerce company, there's a few things that I can take and maybe adapted to my company, but her passion towards her business is a big one.

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