Susana Camarena is the Senior Director of Impact and Culture and Head of the Tacombi Foundation at Tacombi, a hospitality company that connects people to Mexican culture through neighborhood taquerias and retail products. The Tacombi Foundation is focused on improving community structures, specifically in places with many people experiencing food insecurity, by providing access to food, education, and employment training for their communities. Since becoming Senior Director of Impact and Culture in April of 2020, Ms. Camarena has been working to expand the efforts of the Foundation, specifically through a food accessibility program (the Tacombi Community Kitchen), which was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the program’s start in 2020, the Tacombi Community Kitchen has provided over 600,000 meals to communities in New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C., and has now expanded to Connecticut and Chicago.
Ms. Camarena earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the Universidad de Guadalajara, and attended the Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals at the Columbia Business School. She also earned a Diploma in Migration and Governance from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas) A.C. in D.F., Mexico.
Since 2013 she has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Mexican Professionals and Entrepreneurs (APEM) in New York. She also works with the Mercy Center, a Community Center in the South of Bronx that is focused on empowering women and their families, and of Brave Up!, a technology startup that predicts and prevents cases of microaggressions, bullying, and cyberbullying.
Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with the Center! Can you tell me about your work with Tacombi? How do you see your role as Director of Impact?
Susana Camarena: I’ve been with Tacombi since April 2019. I started as Chief of Staff to our CEO and Founder Dario Wolos. I met Dario in 2017 at the 10-year anniversary event of the nonprofit I was running at the time (the Qualitas of Life Foundation). He shared with me his vision of creating a company that could invest back into the community, which became the Tacombi Foundation. I joined the company with the idea of building the foundation as Tacombi’s structured philanthropic arm. After one year, I pivoted to focus on Tacombi’s community impact, working closely with the People team to build internal programs and initiatives to positively impact our workforce (now with more than one thousand team members) and to finally start operating the Tacombi Foundation, which was established as a nonprofit organization (501c3) at the beginning of 2019 [after the establishment of Tacombi Taqueria in 2006 in Yucatán, Mexico].
FPC: The Foundation has recently introduced the idea of starting a job-training program at Tacombi taquerias. What challenges do you foresee in creating this program? How will the program operate in terms of the number of participants and included elements?
SC: Yes! We are excited about this new program, which we were able to kick off with a grant from the Hispanic Federation and the support of Kerry Brodie, Founder and Executive Director of Emma’s Torch, who has been consulting for us to create pathways for economic mobility through a Restaurant Workforce Development Program focused on the Latino population. We are hoping to pilot our program in 2024 with a cohort of 10 to 12 individuals to start.
The program is being built to prioritize the needs of women seeking to access job training opportunities. It will provide paid culinary training and professional development classes to the Latinx community. The training will be conducted in Spanish and English and will feature culinary fundamentals, introduction to hospitality, job readiness and professionalism training while using Tacombi’s taquerias and support system to create a well-rounded program. After graduating, participants will be able to access job opportunities anywhere they choose, including Tacombi if jobs are available.
The goal is to have a scalable program that can be replicated in the various cities where Tacombi has a presence.
FPC: In what ways will this program deepen the Foundation’s roots in the communities it currently serves?
SC: We believe that economic mobility can be achieved through stable and better-paid jobs. Nonetheless, we are aware that not everyone has access to training opportunities to grow in their career.
The restaurant industry is based on the concept of service, and we want to serve people who want to find a way of earning a living in this industry through a program that will provide them with tools to do so within a safe, respectful, innovative and thriving environment.
We plan to leverage our Foundation’s current program (the Tacombi Community Kitchen), with a network of more than 45 organizations in seven different cities serving our target populations, to continue uplifting their communities, now through this new program.
FPC: What do you hope to see as a source for the growth of Tacombi: continued geographic expansion, and/or providing more services to your existing communities?
SC: Tacombi will always serve the communities where we have a presence and beyond (including Mexico!). We cannot conceive doing business without generating a positive impact for all our stakeholders. That is why we want to ensure our guests are able to see and recognize the brand’s impact on the community as well. In the coming years, seeking to bring Mexican culture to more people, Tacombi will continue expanding geographically, opening taquerias in different cities across the country as well as opening new ones in places where we already have a presence. This expansion will naturally help the Tacombi Foundation to increase its reach, and that is a great opportunity to positively serve more and more communities, a prospect about which we are very excited.
FPC: What is your assessment of the state of the food system in NYC in comparison to other cities in which Tacombi works? What does NYC offer that is different in the context of policy and government-driven food security/sustainability initiatives?
SC: This is a difficult question since each city presents different challenges. The city in which I have the most experience is NYC, and it is inspiring to see the emergence, in recent years (many of them during the pandemic), of organizations and community leaders who seek to transform the food system from various angles, taking part in creative solutions to address these challenges, like initiatives promoting better eating habits, equal access to quality and nutritious food, as well as the importance of promoting food that is culturally relevant for different sectors of the population. We have recently observed increased interest from local governments in creating policies that bring us closer to a better food system. There is, however, much more to be done, and, ultimately, it has to be a joint effort between the public and private sectors.
Food insecurity is a concern in every city. It is a national problem that has a lot to do not just with unsustainable food systems but also with economic and education disparities. In NYC, about 15 percent of the population experiences food insecurity, and although this situation was exacerbated by the pandemic, the problem has been around for a long time in what is one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
One big challenge in NYC, at least for the Tacombi Foundation, has been transportation for the last mile of our prepared meals. Once the meals are prepared and ready to go at a Tacombi Taqueria, we need to transport them to the place where the recipients will get them, whether it is a community center, a shelter or a community fridge. The coordination and logistics of that have to be very precise, taking into consideration at what time the meals were prepared, where they are going, and at what time they have to be there. This has been a constant challenge that we’ve addressed by working together with our community partners and funders. It hasn’t been as much of an issue in other cities like Miami, the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia) area, and most recently Chicago and Connecticut, where our partners have either solved their transportation issues or work with a pool of volunteers who have cars.
FPC: What policy changes do you think would make the biggest impact on food insecurity and the food system overall, specifically in NYC?
SC: To further enhance NYC’s food system, I believe that policy-makers should certainly prioritize initiatives that address food-access disparities. It has to be done through a holistic approach. Programs such as SNAP work; however they are not sustainable in the long run if the goal is to create a better food system. Work has to be done that involves entities like the education system, food businesses, nonprofits, and community leaders. Incentives like tax breaks to people or entities in the private sector that are contributing solutions to a fairer food system, access to more funding for nonprofits working toward more sustainable practices, and the promotion of healthier eating habits are also needed.
I want to believe that Tacombi will become a benchmark in the restaurant industry for best practices contributing to a fairer food environment for all (If we’re not yet!). All human beings should be able to feed themselves and their families with dignity and respect, regardless of their economic status.
FPC: Any final thoughts?
SC: Thank you for the opportunity to share some Tacombi Foundation insights with your readers through your very thoughtful questions. In conclusion, I would like to share a thought about the restaurant industry, which is by nature a place where community is built. But it is also a catalyst for social justice, where we can build a fairer world for all. In NYC in particular, we have an opportunity right now to build on the richness of diversity by integrating new neighbors into this very special community and the industry workforce. Unfortunately, the road is not paved yet and we cannot go at the speed that is necessary to make this happen. An expedited work-authorization process for newcomers is more necessary than ever in order to integrate everyone into our society with dignity . We need to make that happen!
Grew up in: Mexico
City or town you call home: NYC
Job title: Senior. Director of Impact and Culture
Background and education: Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the Universidad de Guadalajara. Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals from Columbia Business School. Migration and Governance Diploma from the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas A.C. Before joining Tacombi I was the Executive Director of the Qualitas Of Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on providing financial literacy to the hispanic immigrant community in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Fixable
Food policy hero: Natalia Mendez from La Morada
Your breakfast this morning: Local scrambled eggs with salsa macha, and homemade banana-almond pancakes 🙂
Favorite last meal on Earth: Chilaquiles
Favorite food: Mexican food (Spicy please!)
Food policy social media must follow: definitely @nycfoodpolicycenter, @toogoodtogo, @rethink