Daydreamer Series: On the Grit It Takes to Keep Going

Despite setbacks, chef Dalan Moreno’s dream of building a permanent restaurant space for Rascal’s Vegan persists.
Daydreamer Series: On the Grit It Takes to Keep Going

You can call Dalan Moreno a lot of things — chef, entrepreneur, nice guy — but “committed” might be the most appropriate. He was 15 years old when he was inspired (in part by punk music) to adopt a vegan diet and he’s been vigilant about the lifestyle ever since, going so far as to tattoo the word VEGAN in scrawling black letters across his neck. “You can’t really walk into Whole Foods and get a job once you do that,” Dalan laughs. 

Dalan took his love for cooking plant-based Mexican dishes and burgers and started serving up vegan food to his hometown of Santa Barbara, CA under the name Rascal’s Vegan. After years operating through pop-ups and residencies, he’s finally got the keys to his own physical space, but building a restaurant — and keeping the lights on — takes both grassroots support and a lot of grit. 

As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall

“My friends and I went vegan when we were teenagers because we just didn’t want to partake in mainstream culture (we were into punk music), but what kid doesn’t still want pizza and ice cream and all that? We’d daydream about starting this spot called Burger Town, where we’d serve vegan burgers and milkshakes. It didn’t go anywhere but we kept cooking together every Friday as we grew up because it was the easiest way to keep eating the foods we wanted.

I got the “vegan” tattoo on my neck when I was 19, which really limits the type of jobs you’re applying for. I started working on a construction crew, but unless you’ve gone to school for a specific trade, you’re the guy digging holes. I eventually found my way into carpentry and took some classes at the city college’s construction academy, which is a segue into securing a contractor’s license. During that time I was taking vacations to New York and Los Angeles, where I got to try some excellent vegan restaurants. When a new vegan spot opened back home, I was excited to try it even though it was pretty pricey for me at the time. It ended up not being very good and I was just like, ‘This is my sign. I’ve got to start something.’ 

“I worked up the courage to approach a wine bar in town to ask if they’d host a pop-up. We sold out in 30 minutes.”

My first pop-up restaurant experience was through this little window I had in my kitchen that looked out onto my back porch. I served ten of my friends Mexican tortas and burgers. I did a few more pop-ups before I worked up the courage to approach a wine bar in town to ask if they’d be up for hosting one. They were like, ‘Sure, can you start this Friday?’ So I recruited a few friends to help me—we sold out in 30 minutes because we’d only brought enough ingredients to serve 30 people. The pop-up business just snowballed from there. I called it Rascal’s because it felt fitting for someone with no experience [laughs].

It sounds like instant success but I faced a ton of rejection. Most of the time when I reached out to a location about a pop-up they wouldn’t even read the message, or I’d ask certain chefs if I could work for them for free and they ignored me. I didn’t have much formal training and knew I needed to go back to the drawing board and learn some foundational skills, and eventually a friend who was a chef at a spot called Satellite let me help her out. I started taking cooking more seriously, especially Mexican food, and finally bought a plane ticket to visit family in Mexico City to see if I could learn to make my stuff more authentic. It turned into this three-year journey where I’d travel back every few months, cooking with different friends’ moms in their kitchens and immersing myself in the city’s vegan scene. They have these incredible vegan street fairs once a month and I learned some amazing techniques and recipes — oyster mushrooms are so cheap in Mexico you can buy a hundred pounds at a time. The chefs will chop them up and grill them for tacos and they’re incredible.

Back home, I was still working construction from 7am to 3pm everyday and running three pop-ups a week on top of that — and not just in Santa Barbara, but San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland. I was busy but I had dual income so I was able to stack up a good amount of money. I became creative with ways to save, even subletting my room to a friend and just sleeping on the couch. Eventually I got enough financial cushion and confidence to take the leap of faith, but the pandemic was a weird time for restaurants. 

“You have a dream of what your restaurant will look like but as reality sets in, you have to let that vision be fluid.”

Rascal’s Vegan was offered a residency at this Indian restaurant in town that’s famous for its sommelier and that was the first time we were able to build a real clientele — it was hard for people to know where to even get our food until that point. When they decided to go back to seven days a week, I signed a year-long lease in a shared-use building. Meanwhile, my girlfriend started helping me with Rascal’s marketing and things really changed. Up until then, I’d been hyper-focused on cooking, like, ‘Here we are. Here’s the food. I don’t know,’ but she gave us a real identity. The other restaurants in the building started folding and in the span of a year we were the only one left standing. I knew in my gut the person leasing the building would eventually be forced to kick us out and end their lease, but I ignored it because I’d built this full restaurant with a sous chef and dishwashers and everything. When the time came, I had no idea what to do — I realized maybe it was time to get my own space.

I spent the majority of the money I’d saved on a security deposit and since I’d sold all my carpentry tools, we set up a GoFundMe to help start actually building out the restaurant. In my head we were going to hit our fundraising goal right away, and I’m blown away by what the community has given us, but we’re still really far from hitting that number. Just to paint the place costs $4,000. Paying someone to build and install these shelves would run me $3,000, so I did that project myself but then I lost three days doing it. I spent a whole day installing heat lamps only to realize they were too long. Our original opening date came and went and we’re still building—you have a dream of what your restaurant will look like but as reality sets in, you have to let that vision be fluid. 

“People tell me every single day that all this hard work is going to pay off. I’m like, ‘When? When does it pay off?’ [laughs].”

Being broke is f**king scary [laughs]. I think about giving up every single day because I’m scared; I was scared to sign this lease because five years is a really long time. I wish money wasn’t part of chasing a dream because I’m so passionate about this thing and I’m putting so much faith into there being a return on my investment, but there’s no guarantee that return will ever come. What keeps me going is serving my customers. My favorite thing is when Mexican people eat my food and can’t tell it’s vegan. Most things I’m making are traditionally handmade from scratch—I even have a mill for making the tortillas. My family are heavy meat-eaters so I have to work extra hard to make my dishes taste like the real thing.

I always joke that if you stick around me long enough I’m going to put you to work. My mom does my accounting, my girlfriend does all of our branding and marketing—right now, my friend Scott is behind us doing the window painting. When I was just starting out with the pop-ups, I had no money to pay anyone but all of my friends would come and work for free food and tips. I owe everything to that communal support because this is not an easy business. 

My dream now is just to get this place open, really create a place where people want to hang out and eat good food. If I can get this off the ground, the next iteration of the dream would be to expand the Rascal’s brand by opening more restaurant concepts that run themselves while my girlfriend and I travel the world and do pop-ups—right now we have no quality time together because I’m thinking about this restaurant 24/7 [at this, Dalan’s girlfriend lets out a knowing laugh in background]. I also recently started consulting and have developed vegan recipes for a film-set caterer and some local restaurants, and I’d love to continue helping people integrate vegan options into their menus. Hey, who knows, maybe Burger Town will happen one day!

The best and worst part of this job is being my own boss. I love getting to do whatever I want with my life, but it’s always in the back of my mind that no one is coming to bail me out.  People tell me every single day that all this hard work is going to pay off, and it sometimes feels like it’s never going to happen because I’ve been working so hard for so long. I’m like, ‘When? When does it pay off?’ [laughs]. But I’ll keep building shelves and making food in the meantime because there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. To make a dream happen you have to want it bad enough that nothing will stop you from getting it—not even yourself.”

Rascal's Vegan opened its doors shortly after we interviewed Dalan for this story — you can visit them at 432 E. Haley Street in Santa Barbara. Dalan wears the Men’s Bodega Clog In Military Olive10% of sales from this style will be donated to The Ecology Center.

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