La Pepia: Venezuelan Street food interview

It goes without saying that we’re always impressed with our members – your food, your tenacity and your passion for the industry are unrivalled. So, when we sat down to speak with Joel, we were expecting to be impressed – but it’s fair to say he exceeded our expectations.

Joel’s dream was to set up a food business in his native Venezuela, but when the economy crashed and his business became untenable, he decided to take his dream to London. Joel hopped on a plane alone, with no business partner and without being able to speak to English.

Five years later, he is running a successful, ethical Venezuelan food business in some of London’s best-known locations, with big plans for the future.

Hey Joel, we know you’re really passionate about Venezuelan food – can you tell us more about your menu and where your passion for food came from?

J: I have been an enthusiastic cook for many years and obviously the food I cooked at home was Venezuelan. I wanted to bring the tradition and the flavours with me, and to share Venezuela through my food; but I’ve also played around with different ingredients and offerings so that I can offer diversity on my menu, and also because I want my food to align with my ethics.

Can you expand on what you mean by that, Joel?

J: Sure, so obviously it’s important to have vegan options as we know they’re better for the environment and for animal welfare, so I offer vegan and vegetarian fillings such as halloumi, grilled cheese, and sweet plantain.

However, what I’ve also started to do is reduce how many avocado dishes I have on my menu – “mindful quantities” of it anyway. Avocado farming is having a destructive effect on land and homes in Peru because of the amount of water it requires, then it’s sent over here and often ends up going off or turning brown because it expires quickly. Having fewer meat fillings also means that I’m running a lower risk business, which is an important consideration.

Thank you for sharing that with us. Whereabouts in London do you trade?

J: Prior to Covid, I was trading in Borough Market, which I loved. We’d traded there previously and had a pitch we were about to start on there again, but then lockdown happened and obviously we couldn’t. We now trade in Finsbury Park on weekends and occasionally at Burmondsey Market.

Have you adapted the business in any way since the beginning of the pandemic?

J: Yes, we started using Deliveroo at the beginning of the pandemic and we’re still using it now. It works particularly well in the winter when people want their La Pepia fix, but maybe they’re quarantining, or they’re poorly, or the weather is bad. During the lockdowns, we delivered boxes of arepas to customers too, so they could make their own little La Pepia dish.

How do you, or how have you reached most of your customers would you say?

J: Through Instagram definitely – most of our orders throughout the pandemic came via people messaging me through Instagram.

Tell us more about the logistics of the business, Joel. How many staff do you have?

J: I run the business on my own, I don’t have a business partner. I have a few staff who work in the unit at weekends, that’s the only time I trade. I spend the week preparing for the weekend, sourcing, and setting up etc.

How do you find it, running the business on your own?

J: Everything is hard! However, it is going really well. It took me a while to develop the branding to a place where I’m happy with it and I haven’t had a break or a holiday in many years. It looks like we just work on weekends because that’s when we trade, but it’s a seven-day a week job.

What aspects of NCASS membership have you found most beneficial?

J: All of it, being able to call someone and ask questions when I’m unsure of something, the training. And the Booker rebate is brilliant!

You’ve achieved so much in the last few years. Do you have any goals for 2022 and beyond?

J: Yes, I’d like to get into a commercial kitchen space this year. There’s so much more for me to explore. I’d like to do more events and festivals, and I’ve got ideas for a franchise, so we’ll see.

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