The owners at La Chica Loca have gone through a few incarnations of their business, leading to the brick-and-mortar restaurant that opened on High Street in early 2020.
Now, another change has come.
Amanda Jensen, co-owner, announced last week the restaurant she shares with her husband and chef, Greg Atkinson, would close its doors as a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. Instead, it would continue operating the popular food truck, offering catering services and using its High Street location to become a commissary kitchen.
"As any restaurant owner will tell you, this year has been extraordinarily difficult. Staffing issues, mandatory closures, lots of unknowns," Jensen said. "We were working absolutely insane hours to keep our restaurant, food truck and catering businesses running."
La Chica Loca wasn't eligible for government assistance during the pandemic as it couldn't show a loss from the year before. In 2019, La Chica Loca was operating as a successful food truck based on East Capitol Avenue when the May 2019 tornado slammed the truck against the back wall of what was Avenue HQ and destroyed it. That closed the business for the most part, and the owners raised money from supporters for the planned restaurant.
It wasn't the first setback for the local business. La Chica Loca first opened inside 202 E. High St. in 2018, shortly before the building was evacuated because of a damaged common wall it shares with 200 E. High St. The west wall at 200 E. High St. partially collapsed in June 2018.
After surviving the pandemic and closures, the business was moving forward. But, a personal tragedy changed things.
"When our daughter passed in February, it became unmanageable," Jensen said. "Our daughter struggled with severe mental illness. It was heartbreaking watching her fight her own mind for peace all these years, and her death broke me."
Jensen said she learned from her daughter it's OK to ask for help and take the time needed to take care of her own mental health. That's why she decided to tell La Chica Loca's customers the reasons behind the new direction.
"Hiding the truth from our customers didn't even occur to me," she said. "Admitting it to myself was the hardest part. I think almost everyone has a time in their life that takes them into darkness. Our tendency is to isolate. By talking about this openly, we start to normalize it, and hopefully remove the stigma of mental health struggles, so others aren't so ashamed to get help."
The shift will allow Jensen more time to take care of herself while Atkinson takes the lead with the food truck and catering, which were always more of his specialty. And one more shift will occur with the new focus.
"By choosing the food truck route, our focus will change from breakfast burritos to Chef's favorite food, tacos," Jensen said, using Atkinson's well-known nickname.
The existing space on High Street will become a commissary kitchen, which Jensen described as a community or ghost kitchen — a shared commercial kitchen. She said she hopes the space will help others work toward their dreams in the same way she and Atkinson have done.
"When starting in the food business, the costs are astronomical," she said, noting the shared space allows people to take a risk without as much financial investment. "It's how we started our own business, and want to help others to realize their own dreams. We cannot wait to see what culinary delights our community will create."
While it generally will be closed to the public, Jensen said she hopes to host an occasional open house to show off new locally made dishes.
Though Jensen said it's hard to know how things will go in the future, they consider the closing of the restaurant space for La Chica Loca to be permanent.
"That said, we've been though a collapsed building, a tornado and a pandemic. Who knows what's next for us?" Jensen said. "We know that regardless of the where or what, we will continue to focus on feeding people delicious food."
Jensen said she hopes to find new ways to give back to the community as the business shifts focus. She noted when the decision was made to close, she thought of a homeless man with mental health issues whom they fed a few times each week.
"I wonder if anyone else will let him have a chair and hot meal on the regular," Jensen said. "I hope so."
For those interested, Jensen said to follow La Chica Loca on social media to see where the food truck will be. A text program also will send a weekly message letting people know where to find the truck, and people can sign up by texting JOIN to 833-888-8450.
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