“We serve hospitality first. We also happen to serve tacos,” begins a phone conversation with Briana Valdez, founder and owner of HomeState, the beloved Los Angeles-based Texas-style restaurants. “It’s our primary reason for existing.” A couple of weeks after the mandated restaurant closures due to Covid-19 and Los Angeles’ Safer-at-Home order, Briana took a rare day off to pause and breathe—but regardless, was receiving orders from vendors to operate as a general store and take-out and delivery restaurant.
The day before our conversation, Mayor Garcetti had listed restaurants as essential businesses, something that shook Briana to the core. The statement personally validated her purpose as a restaurateur and acknowledged the importance of the restaurant industry as a whole. When a restaurant closes people lose jobs, the community it serves doesn’t have access to food, vendors don’t have anyone to sell to, and farmers waste produce; the entire system is crippled. Briana is determined to keep her community fed, vendors and farmers supported, and the lives of her staff intact.
“HomeState is lighthearted, fun and good for the soul,” she says, acknowledging that beyond the casual breakfast taco or margarita, restaurants play a crucial role in the communities they serve. Before the mandated restaurant closures the HomeState’s vibrant, bustling locations were packed with indoor and outdoor seating where friends and families gathered for breakfast or lunch, and many Texas transplants found a taste of home in L.A.
Like many restaurants around the globe, HomeState is taking the opportunity to utilize new and alternative revenue streams. Briana finds herself constantly pivoting and adjusting to the changes thrown her way in recent months. With three restaurants in Los Angeles, Los Feliz Highland Park and Playa Vista, they’re surviving by selling grocery staples, pantry items, and home essentials.
HomeState was ahead of the curve in Los Angeles setting up a grocery option and implementing social distancing outside their shop for take-out and pick-up. In the early weeks of the city’s lockdown order, HomeState was one of few places in Los Angeles where one could find toilet paper, eggs, milk and flour. By doing this, Briana provided a new revenue stream, kept vendors in business, and ensured the community had essentials.
While HomeState is not currently offering its full menu, to satisfy cravings, the Lil’ Menu—which is available for take-out or delivery—provides a curated offering of select tacos, queso, guacamole, sides and margaritas. But the task of limiting the menu was not an easy one for Briana. “For the first time since the restaurant opened in 2013, HomeState does not allow menu substitutions,” she says. Doing so would create added movement in the kitchen, which would interfere with social distancing efforts. “It hurts me to do this, but we have to. We need to take every possible measure to keep our team and the community safe.”
Concerned for the health of her front and back of the line staff, when word of the virus began hitting the news, Valdez began a carpooling system in which Paola Morales, HomeState’s “Tortilla Queen,” participates. “I used to take a bus and two trains to get to work every day,” says Morales. “Now, for our safety and for the safety of the restaurant, someone picks us up, drives us to the restaurant, and drops us off at home after our shifts.” These drivers are HomeState staff members hired to drive their colleagues—yet another means of keeping staff employed while social distancing measures are reducing shift availability. (No more than three people per car, all wearing masks, and driving with the windows rolled down are strictly enforced.)
Morales has been a part of the HomeState family for five years and is grateful to Briana “for always taking care of us and keeping us employed,” she says. Morales longs for the days of greeting customers from the open kitchen while making tortillas—a job she takes great pride in—and misses the families who have become an integral part of her HomeState experience.
Logan Cochran, who has worked with HomeState since it opened in 2013, concurs. Having recently lost his full-time job at a bar in West Hollywood, working in the Highland Park location has provided framework and structure to his life. Cochran is thankful the restaurant has been able to adapt quickly and efficiently.
He describes the measures taken to keep everyone safe. “We have timers going off every thirty minutes where everybody in the restaurant—front of the house and back of the house—will sanitize the stations they’re working in, change their gloves, and wash their hands,” he says. Cochran adds that customer generosity has been overwhelming and humbling. “People have been tipping on groceries,” he says. “Being in the service industry, I don’t know if I would ever think to do that.”
HomeState also looks beyond their restaurants and into their communities. Soon after opening the Highland Park location, Andy Valdez—the restaurant’s director of marketing, and Briana’s sister—began working with Field Deputy Bill Cody of City Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s office in the Highland Park City Council. For the past two years, with the help of Cody, Sergio Corral at Aldama Elementary, and Megan Guerrero at Monte Vista Elementary School, HomeState has been distributing gift certificates to families in need, which can be applied toward prepared food. And as of March, the certificates can also be used toward groceries in the HomeState General Store.
According to Cedillo’s Communications Director Conrado Terrazas Cross, their relationship with HomeState has expanded. As of mid-April, 150 free meals were served daily to local families by neighborhood restaurants in the Free Restaurant Meals Program; as part of this program, HomeState is providing meals three days per week. In addition, HomeState and Cedillo’s office are providing hot meals to families at Para Los Niños. “We’re fortunate to have a very involved city council,” says Andy. “They take the two-pronged approach of supporting businesses and families.”
Briana mentions the ABC (Alcohol and Beverage Control) mid-March approval of selling wine and spirits for delivery to help businesses generate additional revenue. Offering to-go margaritas and palomas in that capacity also boosted the restaurant’s morale; Cochran says the energy in the restaurant was buzzing and almost felt like a normal day once they started serving spirits. “We’re getting through and finding the joy,” says an emotional Briana.
HomeState also recently launched the “HomeState for Hospitals” initiative. The program began as a partnership with the three hospitals closest to their main Hollywood kitchen—Kaiser Permanente, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles—and has since expanded to locations across the city. To date, the restaurant has provided 2,100 meals to healthcare workers.
Briana has taken pride in building a level of trust and community over the years, but especially now. “We’re trying to be vocal and advocate for the industry as a whole,” she says. “Because we know it’s not just about HomeState; it’s not just about our guests. It’s about the greater good.”