“You won’t believe you’re eating something that’s vegan.”

Vegan Dominican food? That’s right, and it’s being made here in JP. Today we’re speaking with Cecilia Flores and Ivannoe Rodriguez Sierra, owners of the brand-new catering business Coco Verde Vegan (https://cocoverdevegan.com/), about creating delicious recipes based on traditional dishes (and new ones), helping people get healthier, and how JPNDC helped their vision become a reality.

How did you come up with a business idea that combines vegan and Latin food?

Cecilia: Well, my family thinks we’re crazy! At any Dominican gathering it’s always arroz, habichuelas y carne. Rice, beans, and meat. So it was definitely a shock at first. Since then it’s been really fun to open their eyes.

Cecilia with Ivanna at First Baptist JP, which makes its kitchen available to small catering businesses.

I decided to switch to a vegan diet when our daughter Ivanna was transitioning to solid food. I had kind of an eye-opening moment of realizing how much pizza and French fries we ate! My background is in health, I’m going for my PhD in social policy, and I knew how many health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes are related to food. I wanted to give Ivanna the best start and I thought I should set an example.

So one night at about midnight I told Ivannoe, ‘I’m going to go vegan.’ He was like, ‘what? Are you crazy?’

Ivannoe: Little by little, I was convinced. I would try what she was eating and think, ‘hmm. This is pretty good!’ I started trying to take traditional recipes and make them vegan. Her family would also try them and think, ‘wow.’

Cecilia: Ivannoe’s a chef—he studied at le Cordon Bleu. I grew up cooking with my grandmother and mother. So cooking has always been a big part of our relationship and it was fun to work out new recipes. But not everyone has the same inclination and we thought we could play a role in making it easier for people to try vegan options. And for people who are already vegans to get the flavor they might be missing.

Ivannoe: The best thing is the way that we feel now. We feel so healthy.

Can you give me an example of a traditional recipe that you made vegan?

Cecilia: We have different backgrounds but there are so many things that we both grew up eating. I was born here but my family is Dominican. Ivannoe was born in the Dominican Republic. There’s a dish, pescado con coco, coconut fish, that my grandma used to make all the time.

Eggplant roll ups with creamy cashew and tofu ricotta

Ivannoe: She knows I love that!

Cecilia: We use jackfruit for the “fish.” It has a very meaty texture. You combine it with coconut and seasoning.

Ivannoe: …and with seaweed, which gives it a kind of seafood flavor. You won’t believe that you’re eating something that’s not fish.

Cecilia: My mom’s pretty picky, so if she tries it and likes it, then I know other people will even if they aren’t into veganism!

How has it helped you to work with JPNDC Small Business Services?

Buddha bowl

Cecilia: I had met Carlos

[Espinoza-Toro, JPNDC Small Business Services Director] in a previous job and I knew he was now working directly with entrepreneurs at JPNDC. So I reached out to him right away. He read through our business plan and pointed out specific improvements we could make. He’s helped us with our pricing—understanding how much people may be willing to pay for our services, and balancing that with paying ourselves. He helped us make the connection with this kitchen at First Baptist JP, where we prepare meals for catering. And he helped us get financially organized, to set up Quickbooks as an accounting system, and to understand how important it is to be accurate.

A lot of people have ideas for starting a business. What would you say to them about turning an idea into reality?

Cecilia: Our biggest advice would be: just go for it! I read somewhere that if you’re completely satisfied with your first product, you waited too long. Find the right balance between being prepared and being perfect. That way, you’re not waiting forever for the ‘perfect’ time.

You’re new parents, business owners, and Cecilia, you’re a grad student. How do you do it?

Cecilia: It is a lot, but it’s all things we love! And it’s been really helpful to find other Latino vegans, share information and build that community.

Do you see yourselves ever opening a restaurant?

Cecilia: It’s on our five-year plan. After I finish my PhD program! It’s our dream to have a place that’s affordable, where people can come together. Maybe some live music at night, and even a shop where people can grab healthy, affordable food.

Do you share your recipes?

Cecilia: Yes, you can go to our website (https://cocoverdevegan.com/) and see some. We don’t want to withhold information that could be helpful to others. If we can share recipes that are delicious, easy, and true to our roots it seems like a no-brainer. It doesn’t take away our role as caterers, when we do all the work so that people can enjoy their event or party. We put a lot of love in it.

Food is a thread that can weave us together and elicit deep childhood memories. Choosing what to include in your diet is so complicated and based on so many factors—traditions, preferences, beliefs, access, etc. But those choices can have a big impact on health, and the health of our communities is very close to our hearts. High blood pressure and diabetes are too high among Latinos.

Ideally, it would be amazing if the United States could move in a direction where everyone had access to safe, healthy, fresh foods and there would be less emphasis on “convenient” foods with lots of additives and ingredients we can’t even pronounce. Our hope is that food will continue to be something we can all bond over and also something that makes and keeps us healthy.