Brittney Valles starts her day at Tiago Coffee Bar & Kitchen in Hollywood. After a few hours of directing operations, setting up meetings, and making fundraiser phone calls, she heads to Silver Lake to oversee the construction on her next restaurant, Gogo’s Tacos. She finishes the day in yet another location, checking in with the team at Guerrilla Tacos, the Arts District restaurant she opened with chef Wes Avila in 2018.
Almost a decade ago, Valles fell in love with hospitality while working behind the counter at Handsome Coffee Roasters. There, she met regular coffee drinker and seasoned restaurant owner Bill Chait. She never missed an opportunity to ask him questions about restaurant operations, and when Chait opened Petty Cash Taqueria in 2013, Valles joined the team as a host and later a floor manager. While still working at Petty Cash, Valles started her own bookkeeping business, where she met Avila, a client who in 2016 would ask her to partner with him at Guerrilla Tacos. Valles accepted and worked there full-time as managing partner, raising funds, managing construction, and selecting vendors for the restaurant. Three years later, she became its sole operator.
But running what’s soon to be three restaurants isn’t all the 28-year-old has planned. She’s working and fundraising to open a network of independent community centers where young Angelenos can receive holistic care, from learning more about mental health and coping skills to the basics of financial literacy, as well as how to prepare healthy meals, whether professionally or at home. Ultimately, Valles hopes to leave a lasting imprint on Los Angeles, its youth, and the restaurant community.
Eater: How are you making change in the food world?
Brittney Valles: People often overlook us, but we do try to be top of the market and pay. Before the pandemic, we offered Spanish and English classes. We also provide health insurance — medical, vision, and dental. Whenever we make decisions, it’s not so much what’s gonna make us the most money or what’ll look the best, but what is literally the right thing to do.
In July of 2020, I lost somebody to suicide during the pandemic. He was 25. And that was really tough for me; I really started to question the meaning of life. Nothing felt worth the effort anymore, for a good couple of weeks. I knew that in order to get out of that rut, I had to figure it out and needed to get meaning. I was doing reiki, whatever I needed to heal. And one of the things the practitioner did was have me pick a card. It was about kids. And I thought, “This is so stupid. I hate kids.”
But the next day, I woke up with such clarity. I thought to myself, “When could somebody have intervened in [his] life?” He and his parents didn’t know the signs of depression, and had few resources for mental health. That was my upbringing in a lot of ways too. Not knowing how to help. The centers that existed like Boys & Girls Clubs of America or things like that...It was a lot like sheep herding; it didn’t feel right or like truly helpful resource. I woke up the next day and thought, “I really want to open a community center.”But I would go to Boys & Girls Clubs of America or things like that. It was a lot like sheep herding; it didn’t feel right. I woke up the next day and thought, “I really want to open a community center.”
In the back of my mind, I also knew I wanted to make something that was more of the way I ate and the way my mom fed me, because my mom would never come to Guerrilla if it wasn’t mine. She’s not interested in foie gras; I had to pay my Uncle Ralph $5 to try the sweet potato taco. I always had it in the back of my mind to do something Mexican-American as a scalable taco concept with multiple units. In order to protect Gogo’s Tacos and fund my nonprofit, the nonprofit has an ownership stake in the restaurant. And so that’s where Gogo’s Tacos was born. I ended up doing 100 pitch meetings, and I finally found an investor who’s interested. This was around November, and we’re going to open in July.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do similar work?
People will always tell you, “That’s not how people do this. That’s not how X and Y does this.” That’s not really a thing anymore. You make your own path.
If you have an idea, even if it differs from the status quo, go after it if you have a very clear vision and direction. It’s now such a new world and people have so many ideas and inventions. I would say, just do it. But vision is key, because otherwise, you’re just a mess.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in the past year?
Finding my own voice and identifying my importance in the hospitality world. It’s always about the famous celebrity chef, and I’ve always been cool with that. But now, my side of the street has come to the forefront.
Discovering that what I do is important, very cool, and fundamental to making sure people have money, food in their bellies, and stuff like that.
What do you hope to accomplish in the coming year?
Definitely opening Gogo’s and fundraising for the nonprofit so we can start hitting our goal. I’ve been doing Re:Her [a nonprofit focusing on the empowerment of female restaurateurs], which has been really great and helped us to give grants to women in business. Beyond our industry, I want to start utilizing my network and the restaurants I know to start to build this nonprofit and this community center.
If you’re making money off of a community, you should be giving back. It’s really easy to forget that Boyle Heights is across the bridge, and it still has many gangs there. It gives me chills, because it makes me think of my family. And there’s still a lot of income inequality, so I want to make sure for 2021 and 2022 we really take a stand and we’re not complacent. We also want to help others around us and be more vocal.
With the community center, we want to open it in five years. I’ve been doing my budgeting, and I think we need a little under $5 million. And so if Gogo’s achieves the financial goals I’ve set for it, and with independent funding — which we have already — I think we can buy a building and be able to create a network of five or six community centers in LA over the next 30 years.
How can readers support your work?
Come to the restaurants, tip well, support the staff, advocate for restaurants and legislation [that supports restaurants]. Support me and women like me who own businesses that are trying to make their way up, and don’t just go to the places owned by white men. Be a conscious restaurant eater and find places that are owned by women of color. Supporting women like me supports me. Support restaurants that are a little bit off the beaten path.
Wonho Frank Lee is a photographer for Eater LA.
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.