He dreamed of being an engineer. When he was 20, Hernán Fernando was about to start studying engineering in Mexico City. After graduating, he hoped to return to Oaxaca – where his family is from – to work. But just before he was set to begin school, he learned that his father had left his family. This moment took Fernando on a decidedly different course – one that led him to working in the restaurant industry in the United States. After years of putting in work, Fernando now finds himself thriving in a place he never expected to live.
Initially, his younger brother, Marco, said he’d step up and support their mother and siblings through rodeo. But after sustaining an injury, Marco could no longer fulfill his goal. Without hesitation, Fernando, the oldest of five, put his plans on hold. “My dad had left home, so I felt the responsibility of doing it because I was the oldest one,” he told the Daily Breeze. “So I didn’t think about anything – I just went for it.”
Hernán contacted a cousin in the US, and his family paid a coyote to get him across the border. In a week, he found himself working as a dishwasher at P.F. Chang’s. Over the years, he worked his way up to a prep cook, eventually becoming a line cook.
But it was at a Santa Monica bar where his path took another sharp turn. While working there, Hernán met Blake Landis.
“Working with (Fernando) and seeing how hard he worked, and all for his family, it gave me a purpose, something to work toward and feel good about every day,” Landis said.
Landis – who had already started considering opening a restaurant with a friend – realized that his employer would likely never give Hernán the promotion he deserved. So Landis knew he had to cut in Fernando, whom he admired. Together with three other restaurant vets, they bought a restaurant off of Craigslist.
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The five men pooled their money together, expecting to spend about $320,000 to make their restaurant, Cinco, a reality. However, they were about almost $200,000 short. The men turned to maxing out credit cards and selling their possessions to reach their goal. They also lived very modestly, eating rice, beans, and 16 dozen eggs as they prepared to open. When things were looking bleak, they received just the message they needed from Zoila, Hernán’s mom. “We were really getting down to it, and Zoila wrote Hernán this message that’s like: ‘We’re alive, that’s already a victory,'” Landis said. “And it was kind of a nicer way of saying, ‘Man up.'”
Cinco, which is located near the Los Angeles International Airport, opened its doors four years ago. Hernán’s business partners believe the restaurant’s success is largely because of him. The restaurant features Zoila’s recipes in its menu, and Hernán has been able to give his family members jobs at the restaurant, which has flourished over the years. The five owners launched a line of tequila, and plan to have their own distilled mezcal in the coming years. As Fernando enters his fifth year of running Cinco, he’s set to become a US resident – 13 years after he left his dream of engineering behind.