Dora Herrera is the president of Yuca’s Restaurants, which her mom, Socorro Herrera (affectionately known to longtime customers as “Mama”), opened the stand in 1976 with her husband, Jaime, to share a taste of her home-style Yucatán cooking. The restaurant has garnered thousands of loyal customers and critical accolades over the decades.
Dora is an engaging storyteller with a lot of wisdom to share. I spoke with her to learn more about the history, legacy, and future of Yuca’s, and what she has learned as she has led and grown her family’s business.
Could you talk about the history of Yuca’s?
My mom always had a dream to have a little place where she could feed people – a happy place that when people come in they are just relaxed and feel like family. No pomp and circumstance, none of that. Just Hey, good to see you. Let’s eat. Let’s share stories.
One day somebody at work with my sister said, I think I found the place your mom was looking for. My mom saw it and said, Oh my God, this is beautiful. And everybody else thought it was too small or too ugly. And she just looked at them all and said, This is perfect.
Initially, she did everything herself: cook, cashier, hostess, everything. But since she made really good food, very quickly it got to the point where she was asking for help. Then my brother and my dad started working. The turning point was my brother standing on the sidewalk and waving cars over and saying, Hey, we just opened, we have great food. Come in and try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll give you double your money back. People would hear that deal and pull in and try it. Of course, we never had to give any money back, but people walked away with a story.
My mom’s a great cook, and she also has this charisma. Love just shoots out of her and people start loving her right away. So we started building all this, and my parents spoke very little English. As they made friends with the community and the people started becoming regulars, people would come and tell my mom stories or share their angst, not aware that she didn’t understand a word. She would say This customer came and was talking to me about, well, I think it was his wife. I’m not sure. I just smiled and touched my heart and he left happy, but I have no idea what he said! I told her that if she made him happy, that was all that mattered.
With that combination of things, people started taking notice, and then we got a review in the LA Times. And at the time, we didn’t know how big the LA Times was, and we didn’t know what a big deal it was to get the centerfold of the food section, all to ourselves as a first article. The reporter who wrote the article showed up and she was there from nine to five that day answering the phones, because she knew my mother didn’t speak a lot of English. People loved that the reporter was at the location. So they started coming and we never looked back from there. In the 46 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve had Vanity Fair, GQ, USA Today, LA Times, New York Times, Gourmet. Just incredible opportunities to shine. And the funny thing is 46 years later, when we get an article we are still excited and surprised. I like that. We haven’t gotten jaded.
How did you come into the business?
Because I love sports. And I can explain that! I went away to college at Brown in Rhode Island, and I told myself when I got there, I would try everything. I wouldn’t stick to what I knew and a narrow life at college. I’ve always been an active person, so I joined the fencing team and the soccer team and the ice hockey team and the rugby team.
I had never been on a varsity team before, and I just loved it. And when I graduated, I didn’t want to stop. So in order to continue to play soccer and ice hockey, I decided I would work for my parents. That way, if there’s a trip to Mexico or Canada or Philadelphia or wherever to compete, I would be able to say to my parents, Hey, I love you. Can I have the weekend off? So that’s how it started. And every year I would tell my mom at the end of the year, Come January, I’m going to go find a real job.
And my mom, of course, would say, Okay, thank you, honey. We appreciate all the years you worked for us. And then January would come and go and it would be December and I’d say the same thing. And then one year I realized that I really didn’t want another job. I enjoyed what I was doing. I enjoyed working with my mom. She’s always been my best friend, so that was a no-brainer. And once I realized that it was just like, okay, we’re in it together for the long haul.
Do you have a favorite memory since your mom started the business?Our trip to New York to receive the James Beard Award. It was an award that we didn’t know existed. We were nominated by a customer who we didn’t know was a food writer. To be nominated for the most prestigious culinary award in the United States was just astounding.
The big story was that we got the invitation and it said it was black tie. My mom asked, Do you think I should wear my regional costume? Or should we go buy me a dress? And I said, regional costume all the way, no question about it. She kept asking because she didn’t want to look like a fool. And everybody was like, yes, of course, you have to dress in the whole Yucatan thing and the shawl and the flowers on the side of your hair.
Patric Kuh, the food writer who nominated us, met us in New York. He came to a room and he was all like, oh, you guys brought Porto’s. Porto’s is a bakery in Glendale, because we didn’t know if we were gonna be able to find food or not, so we figured we’d bring breakfast at least. And he sat with us for hours. Then the day of the event, an article came out by him, and it was basically my mom trying to figure out if she should wear this or not. He weaved a fabulous story and at the end, he talks about her coming out and shining as she wore her regional costume.
But the joy in my mom’s face that day was just astounding. And then to, to see all the love just bestowed on her. Within five minutes of meeting her, people were calling her Mama. This one guy was on his knees, adoring her. At four in the morning when we were leaving the after-party, some guy chased her out to the taxi and was kissing the window to say goodbye. And the taxi took off and his lips just slid across the taxi window. My sister and I were just like, oh my God, Mom, who knew you were such a heartbreaker?
When they announced the category we were in they popped up a photo of the hut. And my mom was like, OOOOH! I said, Mom, you knew! She was like, Oh, I just got excited. But the beauty of it was in the theater, there must have been like 600 or more people there. People were like Oh! and then laughing joyfully, and then clapping. We didn’t know how many of our customers were in New York or throughout the country that flew in for that. Not only did we get an award, but people love us. And then at the party, as we were walking around, they had all these chefs from throughout the United States, feeding us and we’re walking around and here’s a customer here’s another customer – we had no idea how many famous chefs were eating at Yuca’s. That whole evening was just amazing.
Is there a life lesson that stands out to you, anything that you kind of learned along the way that has made an impact on how you run the business?
I went to Brown and I didn’t know how to play sports. One day I saw a girl with a soccer ball. She was dribbling down the hall and I was like, Wow! And so she stopped and she says, Do you like soccer? And I said, I don’t know. I’ve never played it. And she goes, Well, let’s go. So I went and she was teaching me the basics. And then she said that there’s a tryout for the soccer team. I got picked for the team and then soccer season was over people were asking me what I was going to do next.
They said, Come play ice hockey with us. And I said, I would love to, but I don’t know how to ice skate. And they said don’t worry about it. So I went and I told the coach that I didn’t skate. And he goes, Well, that could be a problem. I tell you what, spend 20 bucks. Get a used pair of skates, and come try out. If you don’t like it, you’re out 20 bucks.
Well, I tried it, and I was hopeless, but I loved the team camaraderie and working hard. They called me the Human Zamboni because I didn’t know how to stop. I would just go around in circles. They also called me Scrapper because I was hopeless, but I didn’t give up.
When the first season was over and the next year came, I told myself that if I was still ankle bending, I’m not doing this. And I got on the ice and I was smooth and I could turn and I could stop. And it was just fabulous and I played for four years.
That experience has stayed with me over the years. Whenever I’m faced with something that I think is impossible, I think back on not knowing how to ice skate. I learned how to ice skate. I played for four years. I got athlete of the year my senior year. And it was all because I decided to try.
What would you like your legacy to be?
We had three young women from the Yucatán visit us back around 2013. They wanted to do so many things. They would say, Oh, I wish we could do this. And I’m like, I know someone. We would call and they would say, of course we’ll give you a backlot tour or whatever. And then whenever anything came up, they would turn and say, Dora knows people!
So I guess I’d like to be known as the person who knows and loves people because it wasn’t only that I knew them, but there was a connection. Because you can know a lot of famous people, or people who can help you along in life, but unless you have that emotional connection, it doesn’t really mean much. So I guess I want to be remembered for love.
This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I would say the women in my family, like my mom, my aunt, who’s my mom’s sister, and my sister. In fact, the four of us got to cater the Super Bowl Tailgate Party together.
The women in my family are strong, so I want to acknowledge those strong women that let you spread your wings and also let you know that they’re there underneath, should you fall. Having that support lets you try things that will stretch you.
And they always told me, This is your dream. Go for it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have all your ducks in a row in order to go and try something. Giving me permission to be bold and daring was huge.
Dora Herrera is the president of Yuca’s Restaurants, known for its Yucatan-style cooking and community involvement. Now with two locations, the original “Hut” in Los Feliz and a second location in Pasadena, Yuca’s remains a Los Angeles institution. Learn more at YucasLA.com.